By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 7, 2018)
There’s a timeworn josh betwixt residents of Western Washington that we’re all D-deficient. Speaking for myself, after 26 years in these parts, I think I’m growing moss on my north side, if you know what I’m saying. Still, while chronic light deprivation does have its downside, there’s something about the prickly-piney smell of perennially soaked, verdant evergreen forests swaying under drizzly, steely-grey skies that pulls me back in.
The moody atmospherics inherent in those verdant evergreen forests and drizzly, steely-grey skies has not been lost on certain filmmakers. David Lynch filmed most of the exteriors for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and both iterations of his Twin Peaks TV series in this neck of the woods. And of course, the wildly popular Twilight franchise has turned the previously sleepy town of Forks, Washington into a Mecca for its rabid fans.
It’s not just fancy-pants Hollywood types who have “discovered” the Pacific Northwest as a backdrop for their projects. For some filmmakers, it’s more like playing in the back yard. For example, take Ohio-born and Seattle-raised writer-director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister) who has made 6 feature films since 2006, and had them all set in Western Washington. Her 7th and most recent effort, Outside In, is no exception.
The rain-washed, backwoods-y town of Granite Falls (population 3400) is a palpable character in this drama about a newly-released felon named Chris (Jay Duplass) struggling to keep heart and soul together after serving 20 years for a wrongful conviction. Only 18 when he got sent up, he has a textbook case of arrested development to overcome; not to mention catching up with a world fraught with iPhones and laptops.
Complicating his re-entry into society is his long-time platonic relationship with the only person who gave him moral support over the years. Her name is Carol (Edie Falco), his high school teacher. Not only did she visit him on a regular basis; tutoring him and helping him keep his spirits up, but advocated tirelessly to get him released. Once he’s out, it becomes obvious that Chris’ sense of gratitude has turned into something deeper.
Perhaps this was inevitable; the soft-spoken Chris is frozen at 18 years old emotionally and socially; he doesn’t feel that he has received much love and support from his dysfunctional family while he was locked up. On one level Carol is flattered, but as she is married and has a teenage daughter, her immediate instinct is to keep Chris at arm’s length. She is adamant that the two of them have always been, and must remain, “just” friends. Then again, there are hints that her marriage is troubled. Things get complicated.
Shelton has a knack for creating characters that you really care about, helped in no small part here by Falco’s presence. She is such a great player; she says more with a glance, a furrow of the brow, or a purse of the lips than many actors could convey with a page of dialog (and I feel very strongly…strike that, I decree that she and Frances McDormand must do a film together at some point…someone simply must make this happen). Duplass (who co-scripted with the director) gives a sensitive and nuanced performance as well.
I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I think Shelton and Duplass (consciously or not) are paying homage to The Graduate. Not just the (virtual) age spread between Chris and Carol, but the interesting dynamic that develops between Chris and Carol’s daughter (a nice performance from Kaitlyn Dever). One short monolog in particular, in which Chris laments he’s tired of everyone telling him that he’s got a bright future and offering unsolicited advice about what he should do with his life, strongly recalls Benjamin Braddock’s angst. Also, not unlike the late great Mike Nichols, Shelton always finds the sweet spot between dramatic tension and wry levity. One of the best films so far this year.