“You are to stay within Snohomish County,” the man says sternly. These words—not often uttered in the cinema—are spoken by a parole officer to a newly released ex-con in Outside In.
They are also taken to heart by the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, who creates a beguiling mood piece by staying close to her local roots. This film is especially evocative in its sense of place: There’s an unmistakable familiarity in the way the camera sees the evergreen-lined byroads east of Everett and the homey storefronts of Granite Falls. I spotted the little smear of green mold that develops around car windows when they haven’t been cared for during a Northwest winter (something I might possibly have some experience with). Outside In is about feeling like an outsider on your own home turf, but it’s been made with a native’s view of the landscape.
The outsider is local boy Chris (Jay Duplass, who also co-wrote the script with Shelton). He’s back in his Washington hometown after 20 years—half his life—in prison. We gradually learn that his former high-school teacher Carol (Edie Falco) worked tirelessly to get his unfairly long sentence commuted. The film’s core idea is genuinely unusual: Chris is so lost in his new freedom that he attaches himself too eagerly to Carol, an older, married, uncertain woman. Adding Carol’s daughter Hildy (a spot-on Kaitlyn Dever, from Detroit) to the mix pushes the movie into possibly dangerous territory. Not so much because of the creepiness about a 40-year-old man hanging around a teenager (Shelton makes it clear that the girl pushes their friendship, out of Hildy’s own needs and curiosities), but because Hildy’s nascent artistic tendencies—explored in a conveniently abandoned house outside town—might become overly precious.
Shelton is known for comedies such as Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, but this may be her strongest film, and it doesn’t have a lot of laughs. In fact, some of the film’s more awkward moments come with little throwaway bits of humor. It really only flags when Falco’s Carol is offscreen too long. That’s not a knock on Duplass (best known as an actor for his ongoing role in Transparent, but also an indie-film-producing dynamo with brother Mark); dark-eyed and anxious, he’s absolutely fine. He’s got a great jealous moment when Carol begins to describe her interest in working to free another incarcerated man, a sign of how the legal part of this experience has liberated something inside her. The wary look that crosses Chris’ face suggests a teenager hearing his girlfriend talk about a new guy at work who seems really nice.
Outside In belongs to Falco, who transforms herself into a prematurely frumpy, fascinatingly restless soul. She’s conquered television in The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, but it’s great to see Falco in a single sustained performance, where every line reading is concentrated with a lifetime’s worth of regrets and hopes. Everything about Carol is thought through, including her look—she’s encased in dowdy flannels and a don’t-mind-me-I’m-nobody hairstyle. Set this performance next to the five Best Actress Oscar nominees from last year (or the Best Actors, for that matter), and tell me it’s not securely in that company.
It’s a terrific actor working at top form, but Shelton keeps the surroundings so modest—little dramatic scenes punctuated by shots of roads and skies—that it never comes off like a grand turn. Falco and Shelton let you peer into a humble life, without condescending to it or making it feel like a case study. We’re looking from the inside out.