You don’t have to be a convicted felon breathing fresh air for the first time to feel like your life isn’t quite complete. That feeling of being lost is one we all feel during our life, some more acutely than others. Director Lynn Shelton however wants her characters to swell with desire despite these feelings and for the most part, they do. What they want, especially from each other however, that might be what has them most turned around.
Outside In tells the story of Chris (Jay Duplass), a recently released parole who after serving 20 years behind bars comes back to his hometown to an entirely different world. His only lifeline that treats him like an equal is the woman who helped him gain his release, Carol (Edie Falco). His connection to Carol might be whats keeping him sane through this transition but it might just be what brings his new world crashing down around him as lingering feelings and changes in society make reintegration difficult.
Despite this central relationship, this really is a film wrapped up by its sense of community, or lack thereof. This feeling of being lost is a universal one and while Chris seems to think at first that everything is about him, Carol, his brother Ted (Ben Schwartz) and Carol’s daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) are just as aimless, they just don’t seem to be as vocal about it. The quietness of the film plays into this idea that we all deal with our problems alone and when Chris brings them together in unexpected ways they are forced to see each other for what they really are, not their own twisted idea of who that person is.
There is something humbling about Chris’ stunted state of mind, the kind of personality that comes from missing out on most of his adult life. His honesty and forwardness hide a fear that everyone else has learnt to hide. Shelton however brings out these fears through subtle means. Hildy’s desire for an adult to acknowledge her existence, her potential or even her mistakes is lovingly depicted through her time spent in an abandoned house. The ribbons she connects around the building aren’t designed to show her artistic temperament but the family she missed growing up.
This idea of family is important to us and by extension to these characters. These aren’t sensationalised people living their lives for our entertainment like in The Truman Show, these are people struggling with their own inadequacies, trying to manage and mitigate the daily pains they feel from a life not lived to the full. These characters before Chris arrived were dealing with a feeling of desolation, not just in the community Shelton has built, one that, by design, seems devoid of people and culture but also in their own lives, settling for less to feel more.
Chris on the other hand longs for the things he never had, the big things. He finds himself seeking love from the one person who showed him any over the last 20 years. He searches for a job to make him more normal, just like everyone else but once he realises that normal isn’t within his grasp there is a sense that a weight is lifted. The emptiness of the surroundings for Carol and Hildy give their scenes a sense of claustrophobia but with Chris it’s the opposite. The feeling of freedom, that he can do anything, be anyone is one lost to this town, but not to him.
Chris spends his time riding around town on his old bike and while he does so a feeling of peace besets the film. The open shots convey his freedom of choice and the quiet, calm music maintains a feeling of content that disappears when he has to deal with people and social interactions he hasn’t had to deal with before. The routine he had in prison seems like something he will never want again as he feels the wind through his hair and lets his senses embrace everything this new world has to offer.
This is a film all about wants and desires. Chris fixates on his desire for Carol so he can avoid figuring out what he really wants, Carol hides from her desire to do more by struggling to fix a broken marriage all while fighting the urge to blow it all up. Duplass and Falco shine in the little moments when nothing is said as these are the moments they can’t hide from their thoughts and feelings. Their imbalanced relationship makes them see things they buried a long time ago.
It’s Dever’s Hildy however that brings the film to life. Her interactions with both Chris, whom she befriends to take something from her mother, and Carol push the story on as she manipulates the situations she is in to point out simple truths to her own family. She does things selfishly for the right reasons. It seems that the younger the person is the more likely they are to fight for what they want. Carol and Ted have lost that, Hildy and Chris haven’t because they haven’t had to grow up too quickly.
We all want something different and while Chris thinks that Carol and he want the same thing, people are complicated. If the film wants to say anything about people’s dreams and their lives in general it’s that settling is more harmful than failing. However the film seems to idealise change and that is where the films carefully constructed sense of reality crumbles. The changes these characters go through at first are internal realisations but when they become sweeping actions, the sudden nature of them seems unnatural. The film works best when they make decisions for themselves and in concluding Shelton has taken those choices away from them in favour of her own.
While there are earned moments for this family of characters there are equally things left unanswered and that’s for the best as this is but a snapshot of a deeper story, one we come into at the halfway point. The idea that we punish our family the most is one such theme that is touched upon but never fully realised but whether or not Hildy can stop punishing her mother or Chris can forgive Ted for never visiting is up to them and we can only guess at the outcome.
The only thing that seems missing, to the films detriment, is a sense of closure to Carol and Chris’ story. While this connection they had, was once important it feels less so as the film goes on as they both gain what they need from each other in some small way. The ending only seems to extend this connection for an unnecessarily saccharine conclusion. It isn’t about what we want from their lives, it’s about what they want and while Shelton does an excellent job of showing us that, she doesn’t follow through on it in the end despite her best efforts.