“I think you’re just going to have to suck it in,” Ted (Ben Schwartz) tells his friend Chris (Jay Duplass), unaware of what he’s asking when Chris figures out a surprise party is awaiting him in the opening minutes of “Outside In.” The gathering won’t be extravagant – in fact, for Ted, it isn’t much different than a Friday night busting open a six-pack with friends, but for Chris, who’s just getting out of prison after and 18-year stretch, a party is far too much to take in, seeing friends and family for whom time never stopped as it did for him. Duplass, a co-writer on the film, and co-writer/director Lynn Shelton keep the reasons behind Chris’ incarceration under wraps for much of “Outside In,” partially because it’s largely besides the point, but mostly since there’s more than enough drama to be found in his cautious reentry back into society, particularly when his greatest source of strength through his sentence, his high school teacher Carol (Edie Falco), who dutifully wrote letters both to him and his parole board without fail, is suffering through an identity crisis of her own.
In what is Shelton’s finest film to date, a title that shouldn’t be taken lightly after the director reeled off such sensitive dramedies as “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Laggies,” the filmmaker continues a study of people who need a shakeup in their lives after reaching a personal crossroads with her usual bracing sensitivity, but does so from a vastly different perspective since for both Chris and Carol, that moment has already happened. While Chris has no doubt been changed by prison, Carol has had her passion reignited by her activism on his behalf and others, validated by his release and finding little recognition either at work in her often thankless role as a teacher or at home where her husband seems to pay her little mind and her teen daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) is in her rebellious phase. However, this being a Shelton film, none of these characters can easily be defined by one quality, and with Hildy roughly the age Chris was when he went to prison, the two bond and bring out a different side in each other than you see in their relationship with Carol. (Likewise, when Chris describes how Carol sent him reading assignments in prison to distract him, Hildy admits of her mom, “It’s like you’re describing someone I didn’t know.”)
With extraordinary performances from Duplass, Falco and Deaver, as well as assured direction from Shelton, “Outside In” seems to come by its emotional richness effortlessly, but you know it couldn’t have been easy, with the characters wearing the past in every moment they’re onscreen while reflecting the glimmer that as daunting as it is to think of the future, there’s still some hope in it. This is underscored beautifully in Andrew Bird’s music for the film, full of discordant notes from nontraditional instruments that somehow come together in harmony, and the complexity of cinematographer Nathan Miller’s elegant, muted compositions that burst to life, allowing the audience to come to it. For a film where the characters often approach one another with trepidation, there is no such uncertainty in “Outside In,” an absorbing drama from the start that never lets go.