When a film has only two primary players, there are only two reasons why it may work. The first is the actors’ dedication to their respective roles, to an extent where they make their written characters more complex than they are supposed to. The second is of course an interesting and intelligent plot that manages to constantly surprise and re-engage the audience wherever the narrative starts losing steam. Sadly, debutant director Nate Strayer’s two-handler ‘Outlier’ is neither of those things.
Shot during the COVID-19 lockdown but never too wary of using the pandemic as a backdrop, the film begins with a sort of epilogue that hooks you with a mysterious sequence. We see a man and a woman in two different scenarios, closely cut together to mark their stories’ ultimate crescendo in the opening sequence.
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The man is seen scrummaging along with computer systems and the woman is clearly disturbed for reasons that will soon be made clear. When we first meet the woman Olivia (Jessica Denton) and the man Thomas (Thomas Cheslek), she is trying to flee away from her abusive boyfriend James (Logan Fleisher).
Thomas, who comes off as a good samaritan, helps Olivia out by freeing her from the psychological prison that she has been living under. He further extends a helping hand and tells Olivia that she can live with him until she figures things out about what she is going to do in her life now.
Entirely clueless about herself and her life, Olivia decides to take him up on his offer. The initial days seem fine where Thomas’ gentle persona and helping nature make Olivia feel safe. He also tells her about his history of abuse and how he is trying to help her out of it because he knows what to do. The fact that he is around a lot is cleared off by putting him as a big app-inventor-dude who makes a fine living.
However, sooner than later cracks start to appear in his lavish living and gentle nature. Some mysterious phone calls and the man’s overindulgence in her personal letter irks Olivia. This feeling is further aggravated when she realizes that she has just left one prison to take shelter in another.
Now, on paper, Nate Strayer’s film sounds like an interesting idea. Using the big-data consequences, with a traditional theme of abuse can have some beguiling results if done well. Especially when you consider the isolation and agony the victim of abuse faced during the lockdown, this premise could have led to an interesting pyschogical investigation.
However, Strayer’s film fails on multiple grounds. Firstly, it never manages to engage you. Neither does it have a cleverly woven thread of plot progression, nor does it have the ability to create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. The only reason a viewer would stick around till the very end is not that they want to have answers, but because they respect the art of filmmaking itself.
The acting by everyone involved is subpar. Both Jessica Denton and Thomas Cheslek feel like cardboard cutouts of a single expression were stamped onto their faces. Denton’s range lands somewhere between ‘feeling miserable’ and ‘feeling smug and miserable.’ Playing an abuse victim asks for a whole lot and Denton simply doesn’t have what it takes to make this character and her motivations feel believable. Cheslek tries to balance his ‘nice guy’ gestures with a more ‘creepy and sinister outlook, but he simply comes off as bland and uninteresting.
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Strayer’s ‘Outlier’ could have worked as a short film that had gotten rid of the excess clutter that is punctuated by its dull second act. Alas! The writing here is all over the place. The two cohesive threads that meet the initial act with the reveal towards the end would have made a tight mid-length short about the circle of abuse and how it takes a lifetime to get over it. Sadly, this isn’t that film.
In its present condition, ‘Outlier’ is a film with an interesting premise that drags on for at least an hour more than it’s supposed to.
Outlier Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Outlier Cast – Jessica Denton, Thomas Cheslek, Kally Khourshid, Nate Strayer, Logan Fleisher