A promising director’s most accomplished work yet
Playing at this year’s American Essentials Film Festival, Lynn Shelton latest, Outside In, is easily her most accomplished work yet. She applies the improvised, almost dogme-like Mumblecore approach, headed by this film’s producers Mark and Jay Duplass (who also stars in the film) to a weightier dramatic plot than she’s ever attempted before. It shows a clear development from an earlier Lynn Shelton movie like Your Sister’s Sister, a moving drama that leaned heavily on its actors’ chemistry and occasionally suffered from its meandering narrative.
Chris (Duplass, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Shelton) returns home to Granite Falls from something like 20 years in prison. He’s picked up by his brother Ted (Ben Schwartz) who’s perhaps unwisely organised a get-together in the house for him. Chris is nervous. Duplass wisely plays him like a teenager in a 40 year old man’s body, as if he never grew into the adult he ought to, spending all those years in prison. He’s all squirms and shy smiles, flicking his gaze up at the house, back to his brother, giving small, furtive smiles.
Shelton and Duplass never give away explicit details in the screenplay as to Chris’s time in prison. We gather them through Carol (Edie Falco), Chris’s old highschool teacher who tirelessly fought for his release, because Chris wasn’t responsible for the murder that put him there. Carol has spent the last several decades committed to his case, causing her marriage to suffer for it. A tense lunch in Carol’s home with her impotent husband Tom (Charles Leggett), who sourly jokes, ‘Can I have my wife back now?’ and teenaged daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), reveals just how much time she put into the case and how intense the bond is between her and Chris.
Sometimes, the sophistication of the dramatic moments reflects the intimacy of an Ingmar Bergman film, while Shelton’s American sensibilities recall the incisive short stories of Lorrie Moore. At other times, the film is dragged down by its propensity to evoke every dramatic point with dialogue. A scene that demonstrates this has Ted, who hasn’t shown much compassion towards his brother’s return, offer to make Chris an omelette. In their little kitchen, while Chris stares at the table, Ted’s guilt is palpable and the scene works well, until Ted breaks down and delivers a long apology. For a film that avoids clichéd flashbacks or monologing, it’s strange that Shelton and co. fail to notice the most important moments where nobody needs to speak at all.
Still, the film is excellent and moving, a stunning portrayal of a difficult subject, with an arthouse tinge owed in part to its peculiar soundtrack by Andrew Bird. It’s a telling example of where the best American cinema is coming from these days, the independent circuit, a great deal of which is showcased in this year’s American Essentials Film Festival.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
The American Essentials Film Festival is running from 10 – 20 May at the Kino cinema and Astor Theatre. The venues are wheelchair accessible.