Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Chris (Jay Duplass) has just returned to his small hometown in Washington State after spending twenty years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The transition isn’t easy. He jokes at his homecoming party that he doesn’t recognize many of the faces; most of these alleged friends didn’t regularly visit when he was behind bars. In fact, only one guest supersedes his desire for quiet and privacy: Carol (Edie Falco), the high school teacher who worked tirelessly to secure Chris’ release.
While his brother (Ben Schwartz) all but vanished after the conviction, Carol called twice a week. She became Chris’ only friend and the one connection to his previous life, an anchor in distressing times. After two decades, a bond formed. Struggling in a marriage that lacks intimacy, Carol found purpose and validation in her work to free Chris. She expected whatever feelings had developed during his time in prison to dissipate after his release, when the freedom of a new life would provide other distractions. When Chris declares his love, however, Carol must address the disappointments in her own life and decide on a path that will make her, and not just others, happy.
For a man forced to eke out a life in prison, Chris displays a surprising vulnerability. Innocent yet abandoned by his loved ones, it’s easy to understand the strong, almost desperate attachment he forms with Carol. Duplass mopes around the constantly rain-dampened town like a puppy that’s been kicked one too many times. He only brightens around Carol, who he believes can help him, or her daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), whom he thinks he can help in turn. When Carol tries to create distance between herself and Chris—if not to save her marriage then to at least avoid the temptation of an affair—Hildy steps in as a kind of little sister for him to watch over. The deteriorating relationship between Carol and her husband alienates their daughter; in Chris she finds a similarly needful soul.
Chris’ release and reintegration into civilian life may provide the impetus for Outside In, yet it’s the revelation of freedom and choice that Carol experiences which provides the ultimate catharsis. In a sleepy town, alongside a docile, soft-spoken Duplass, Falco brims with energy. When she searches for words it isn’t due to a lack of clarity; you can sense there is so much Carol wants to say and so few opportunities for her to express it. Where Chris rediscovers the pleasure found in small, everyday comforts, Carol has finally cast her gaze to the horizon beyond.
Outside In exposes all sorts of prisons: those justified and unearned; those built by others and those we build ourselves. To break free from any of them requires a great deal of strength and, possibly, a bit of serendipity as well. Director Lynn Shelton provides a nuanced look at three prisoners in neighboring, yet dissimilar cells, cleverly hiding the keys to their release in one another. Freedom may look different to each of us, but we all recognize the relief it brings.