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Outside Voices, a new film by Joel Wolpert, loosely chronicles the happenings of Jenn Shelton during the summer of 2015 in the American West. Shelton, the elite ultrarunner made famous by the escapades portrayed in the best-selling book Born to Run, emerges on a track early in the film. During the workout, she showcases her speed, which led to a record-setting, sub-15-hour 100-mile trail time years ago, and her flamboyance—“I just ate a shit ton of Taco Bell”—which has earned her a reputation for foolery.
Insofar as Shelton plays the protagonist, the film is about her. She drives her van, or home on wheels, through the West. She runs a track workout, explores a mountain range and plunges shirtless into a high-elevation lake. Her antics are on display at a race aid station when she humors fellow volunteers, assists and occasionally annoys runners, and parties. She’s seen living on the road, running a 100-mile race and partying again and again.
Throughout these sometimes adventurous, sometimes tiresome activities, Wolpert—an audacious filmmaker and farmer from West Virginia and an accomplished runner in his own right—perches behind the camera, places the audience at Shelton’s side and stands by, filming her highs and lows, her expletives and gracious remarks.
In this manner, Wolpert attempts to capture the essence of a running celebrity who, like any celebrity caricatured in a book (and seven years ago at a young age), has long been simplified, reduced and categorized. In a pithy 45 minutes, the film takes an unadulterated look at a complicated personality—raw, bold, obstreperous and sometimes crass, yet caring, honest, insightful and determined. The film aims to present this beautifully paradoxical person in an equally crude, daring and courageous way.
Wolpert insightfully documents the characteristically unorthodox Shelton using unconventional methods: the film exudes a film-noir-meets-indie-flick feel with its low-key, black-and-white visual style and its use of movi-cam shots, extreme close-ups, voice-overs, time lapses, flashbacks, jump cuts and catchy soundtrack.
But despite his expert use of myriad cinematic techniques, Wolpert takes a less-is-more approach. The film moves slowly and non-linearly. Iconic Mountain West scenery abounds. Terse, perceptive dialogues—“I spend a lot of time alone … I think that makes people uncomfortable”—from Shelton are made into text for the viewer to read and absorb. Meanwhile, Wolpert remains patiently behind his lens, never prodding or provoking Shelton, never importing meaning or judgment into her thoughts or actions.
This sort of artistic minimalism allows viewers to interpret Shelton and sense her essence—but it doesn’t allow them to fully understand her. Rather, the slower pace, non-linear progression and raw shots leave viewers baffled. They want Wolpert to further shed light on Shelton, to be told who Shelton is, to comprehend her; instead they are left reaching for a non-existent plot thread that will definitely answer the question: Who is Jenn Shelton?
RELATED: Jenn Shelton, Unleashed
A trailer for Outside Voices: