Lynn Shelton’s Latest Film ‘Outside In’ Finds Beauty Through Harsh Truths

Filmmaker Lynn Shelton has always been interested in flawed people, never content to settle for easy answers, constantly inviting drama into the lives of her emotionally complex characters in all of her low-key and under the radar gems. A pioneer of the low-budget, semi-improvised, character-based dramedy starring a group of self-effacing performers, Shelton is getting closer and closer to having her big breakout film in terms of larger mainstream success with her effortless ability of taking a simple premise, injecting it with dramatic purpose and heft, and when the situation calls for it, sharply observed humor in sensible doses. She’s shaping up to be some sort of quirky hybrid of Paul Mazursky and Woody Allen, a filmmaker interested in human behavior, with a major emphasis on how people interact and speak. Which makes her latest and likely best feature film, “Outside In,” even more impressive, as it’s coming on the heels of such accomplished work.

The plot is deceptively simple. The extremely talented multi hyphenate Jay Duplass is Chris Connelly, an ex-convict who is trying to pick up the pieces of his life after a 20-year stint in prison. As a teenager, he got involved in a tragic accident, which he then took full blame for, thus sparing his younger brother, Ted (the excellent Ben Schwartz). But as a result, he’s missed out on a large section of his life that he’ll never be able to get back. He heads back to the small town of his youth in upstate Washington, and rekindles an interesting if awkward relationship with his old high school English teacher Carol Beasley, played by Edie Falco in a bravura performance that will likely be forgotten by the end of the year, but certainly qualifies as “award worthy.”

Carol was very helpful in getting Chris released from the pen, and even continued his education by visiting him during his sentence, and then extending their bond by communicating over the years, with a co-dependent relationship being born as a result. What will happen once Chris is back home and a free man, and how will Carol’s own personal struggles come into play are what’s at stake in “Outside In,” which makes the entire film feel personal, unexpected, and extremely satisfying, with composer Andrew Bird’s pensive and acoustic-driven musical score adding a textured layer of sonic ambience.

As usual, Shelton’s inherent sense of emotional discovery remains the crux of the piece, which she co-wrote with Duplass, who is sensational in a thoroughly dramatic turn that feels tragic yet oddly uplifting in certain spots. And the story takes on further dimension as Chris gets to know Carol’s teen daughter, Hildy, wonderfully played by Kaitlyn Dever, who brings a sensible approach to her angst-driven role which could have felt contrived in the hands of a lesser performer. Falco’s expressive brand of acting is both nuanced and big, sometimes in the same scene; she’s a brilliant talent.

Cinematographer Nathan Miller captures the damp Pacific Northwest atmosphere with a somber sense of natural beauty, and the well-chosen locations add the film’s overall level of organic verisimilitude. All of Shelton’s rich work has taken on a deep desire to explore people and emotions and the complexities of the human heart and mind. “We Go Way Back,” “My Effortless Brilliance,” “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Touchy Feely” and “Laggies” have all demonstrated a superb ear for the way people speak, and when combined with an observational shooting style which allows for the expansion of the visual language of cinema, everything feels wholly cohesive. “Outside In” registers as the most grounded piece of storytelling on Shelton’s estimable filmography, and is easily one of the most accomplished pieces of cinema of the year thus far.

Outside In” opens March 30 in select theaters and is available April 3 on iTunes.