It’s a rainy day and you watch the world pass by outside the car window. The landscape may not be anything special, those should all be easily forgettable details – but we notice it unusually well because we see it through the eyes of Chris, who is seeing the outside world for the first time in twenty years.
He’s heading for the little small town he grew up in, Granite Falls, after twenty years locked up. Half the movie passes before we get a clear idea how he ended up there, forcing us to judge Chris by the man he is now, not by what he did or did not do back then.
Outside In is not specifically about the US prison system or the US justice system – even if its possible flaws are certainly an underlying theme. But the film lingers more on the small details of re-establishing yourself in the world. We have the expected jokes about cell-phones, one of them is even funny, but then you also see Chris filling in job applications and you know this is a box he doesn’t fit into and never will. You see him rush to the toilet after the first beer for twenty years and you see him enjoying his old BMX bike. He rediscovers the world riding on it, when he’s biking alone you sense the pure joy of being back in the world that was denied to him. The scenes of him on the bike, which is way too small for him, is also a smart metaphor for the part of him that is still stuck in his teens, not because he’s slow or immature, but because he simply hasn’t done those 20 years’ worth of adult things most of his peers have. Which may be why he doesn’t connect with them anymore, but rather those older or younger. We also get a few examples of when Chris is tempted by extremely minor digressions, yet still big enough to land him in jail for the rest of his life again. In those moments his parole officer’s words ring in ours ears: he’s still far from free.
Those difficult words
Lynn Shelton directs the film and her co-screenwriter Jay Duplass plays Chris. Duplass is probably better known as one half of the Duplass directing duo (and his brother Mark is actually much better known for acting), and they along with Shelton are perhaps some of the best-known directors associated with mumblecore – a term the directors themselves don’t subscribe to. Understandably, since it’s slightly misleading – everybody speaks clearly enough in those films, but they speak a lot and there is often a lot of effort behind the words.
That applies both to Chris and Carol, the second main character. They have to get used to talking without the prison walls seperating them and feelings that hadn’t been put into words are suddenly up for discussion. Carol, masterfully played by Edie Falco, was Chris’ English teacher – but later the one person who fought to get him released. Why exactly they’re bond was strong enough for that we’re never sure of. Possibly he was simply “a charity cause” as Carol’s husband puts it, but it’s something more – we often have to make our educated guesses about the past of those characters. But what we don know is that Carol has been his only real connection to the world all those years and Chris has a big crush on her – while Carol is more sceptical, both because he’s an ex-student and also for the obvious fact she’s married with a teenage daughter – even if we soon see the marriage is crumbling. You even suspect she spent all this time getting Chris free partly to get out of the house.
Their neglected daughter, Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), then finds an unexpected soul mate in Chris. She’s intelligent enough to connect with the dormant teeanager in Chris that never grew up – but they are also simply two outsiders who don’t get the attention they crave from Carol. Showing one of the magic tricks Shelton pulls with this unusual triangle; we often learn the most about the person who is absent at any given moment.
They long for the forbidden because they’ve been denied the normal for too long (Chris), the normal has become their prison (Carol) and … it’s a bit vaguer why Hildy prefers the company of adults to her peers, she goes perhaps a bit too far on the teenage card – but Kaitlyn Dever sensitive acting still conveys a lot the script leaves unsaid. Perhaps to earn a stake in her neglectful mother through Chris, or simply because like the title implies the world is a contradictory place where our desires clash with the expectations of the world, time and again and awkwardness will come with any age. And that’s when they have to figure out the boundaries for themselves – and those are the words that can be hard to utter.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson