‘Outside Voices’ Film Review

Outside Voices has all the classic indie-film elements: shaky camera, lens flare, blurry shots, and odd angles. The viewer is treated to long looks at seemingly unrelated things like powerlines, sprinklers, and the sun. Many of the shots are long and awkward–main subject Jenn Shelton seems to be tolerating the camera as much as filmmaker Joel Wolpert seems to be impatiently awaiting the right shot. Many of the shots are crafted so that the viewer is very clear about where the cameraman is, whether he can’t quite push through a crowd or horsemen on the trail are looking at him instead of Jenn as they pass. Above all, the entire film is in black and white, which gives an impression of rawness. Combined with the rough transitions and almost painful shots of Jenn doing mundane things, the film wants to be a mirror of Jenn herself. It tries to echo her.

The film does not have a conventional story arc, if it even has one at all. Instead, it’s a montage of snapshots of the life of Jenn Shelton. It’s the story of lonely girl putting one foot in front of the other. She parties and travels to see the world and have fun. She talks to everyone. She smiles when she’s sad because crying doesn’t help. She runs when she’s unsure of what to do because that’s what she has always done, it’s what is simple and obvious and as rewarding as anything else. The second half of the film is about Jenn running the Bear 100 Mile, but it’s hard to tell where she is in the race or how it’s going, which like all the other seemingly unnecessary aspects of this movie must have been done deliberately by Wolpert. The race is a metaphor for her life, and she slips through it without clear demarcation the same way she fears growing older without anything real to hold onto. Outside Voices is a sad movie, but don’t pity Jenn. She doesn’t want sympathy… from everyone. She’s vulnerable not to attract attention but because it’s the way she really felt when they were filming. And if I can say one absolutely true thing about Jenn, it’s that she is genuine.

Outside Voices - Jenn Shelton

Jenn Shelton in ‘Outside Voices.’ Image is a screenshot from the film.

Given that a lot of the film’s sadness seems to revolve around aging and time, we’re given very few indicators of time within the film. Just flashes of Jenn’s reality–eating from a cup in the back of her van; laughing while playing cards; driving somewhere new; and best of all–running. I hold a strong conviction that watching running on film is super boring, but Wolpert does a very good job to convince me otherwise in Outside Voices. The most enjoyable parts of the movie are the gorgeous shots of her running along trails in the mountains. Here the camera is as smooth and clear as Jenn’s stride, and we get to enjoy secondhand the simplicity of running. Many of these shots are overtly sexualized, but in contrast the only part where she’s actually topless is one of the least sexual parts of the movie. The movie features many contrasts: she’s shown offering mezcal to people racing 100 miles; she talks about recovering from long runs by eating Taco Bell; the title refers to her spending so much time outside to yell and cuss, but she spends a lot more time being quiet and sarcastic; and at the end of this movie that’s all about her life, she tells us we don’t know her at all.

Jenn can be a polarizing individual. Her reputation is that of the wild and crazy party girl. The book Born to Run crafted her into the anti-heroine who reads poetry and runs all day long; she drinks and parties harder than anyone, yet she’s up training by dawn; she gets into fights and resists authority. She has built (or other people have built for her) the quintessential image of the young rebel bucking tradition. Fiercely independent and truly herself, she’s vocal and irreverent and beautiful. The world loves a rebel, and all the more if she’s pretty. Best of all, she’s fast, and offers a way to be successful and have fun at the same time, without all the boring drudgery of convention. By this point it doesn’t matter if any of that is true or not–the fact of the reputation has become an undeniable influence on her and all the people around her. This is why the world pays attention to her, although it’s only one part of her.

Jenn’s reputation certainly precedes her. When we first met I wanted to be able to relate to her–I wanted her to like me–and I felt almost obligated to be wild and loud and irreverent just to keep up with her. I felt that way because of all the things I’d heard of her. I had a clear image of who she was before I even met her, which is unfair but probably normal to people in the public eye. Her reputation is in many ways a caricature of her reality–the wild parts are cartoonishly exaggerated while the quiet, sad, thoughtful parts of her are downplayed or ignored entirely. She embellishes her own legend as much as anyone, seeming almost embarrassed to show people her gentle sides. Over time I saw the fusion of two parts of her: the wild, loud, silly side fueled by the inner desire for childlike simplicity and awe in nature. It took me a long time to realize that acting like Jenn will not earn her respect unless you really are like her, because she likes and respects people who are completely and truly themselves. The point here, though, is that I did want her to like me. She might polarize people and get into fights, but we can’t stop watching her.

Don’t let me talk her up too much. Jenn has done some stupid things. I’ve seen her insult people she has never met. I’ve seen her scream “the patriarchy” while being arrested; I’ve seen her wish evil things upon people she loved. She is deeply flawed and she knows it. But no more than anyone else. She’s just more vocal about everything she does than most people. Whatever she is, she can’t be wrapped up in a 1,000-word article or a 45-minute film or probably anything at all except a warm blanket. Outside Voices tries to capture this paradox, and succeeds about as well as any story could, which is probably why it sometimes seems to be about nothing at all. This film is about a person whose life revolves around running and adventuring in the mountains, which is the ideal for a lot of people. But you see a lot more mundane nonsense in this film than glorious hero-shots. And that’s what makes it as real as Jenn herself. You should watch the movie.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Have you watched Outside Voices? What was your takeaway from the experience of watching scenes from a summer of Jenn Shelton’s life? And what were your thoughts on Joel Wolpert’s unusual-for-trail-running-filmmaking techniques?

There are 33 comments

  1. Trevor

    Struggling up the hill one day, I paused to catch my breath and looked back to see a runner creepin’. I immediately recognized her and tried my best to stay calm. She took out her ear buds and engaged me in conversation ranging from our shoes to the dry trails. Trying to pretend I didn’t know who she was, I simply asked what she was listening to…she swiftly replied, smiled and marched right up the hill. She is genuine, raw and pure inspiration. Thanks Jenn, Dakota, and Joel.

        1. it's still ok

          You’ve heard of this thing called black and white photography, right? There was even an obscure guy named Ansel Adams that took a few snapshots in B&W of landscapes that turned out pretty decent. Give the movie a look. It’s pretty good. Even in B&W.

  2. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Raw and honest review — well done, Dakota. I haven’t seen the film so I can’t say whether I agree with your critique, but I appreciate how you put yourself in it and didn’t hold back, and I believe you “get” Jenn. So often in our sport’s community, book and film reviews can be damning with faint praise, as if the reviewer is so reluctant to offend. One thing I want to add in terms of a perspective on Jenn herself: She has earned my respect in two ways other than as a runner, and that is (1) her writing for Trail Runner magazine — I encourage people to read her last-page Last Gasp essays that appear every other issue in the magazine, and also dig up her profile of Billy Bonehead in last year’s April issue; and (2) watching her learn photography at last summer’s Trail Runner photo camp, which she took very seriously and worked hard at. So there you go, my two cents :-).

  3. Jeff Kozak

    Jenn mellows out (a little bit) by night 2 and 100+ miles in on the JMT. Right, Jenn? :-) Funny though, she didn’t request Taco Bell for the LeConte Canyon resupply.
    An intentional square peg in a circular, mostly conformist, society. Let’s face it, even the most “independent”-minded of us spend most of our life toeing someone else’s arbitrary line. Jenn does, or at least wholeheartedly attempts to do, the opposite, which can be paradoxically both repelling and attracting. One thing’s for sure though, the handful of times I’ve crossed paths with Jenn have never been boring.

  4. Brent Broome

    Despite the first two paragraphs, I get the impression that Dakota very much enjoyed the film, as did I. Jenn is a complex creature (as are we all) and Joel does a masterful and beautiful job of compiling a collection of vignettes that afford us a glimpse into some of the many aspects of her personality and existence at a particular point in time (namely, the days leading up to, during, and just after the 2015 Bear 100).

    My favorite part of the film is ending, in which Joel reminds us none too subtly that, having watched his lovely portrait, we still know little to nothing about who Jenn Shelton truly is. That is, perhaps, the greatest gift of the film. Just as delving deeply into an academic subject often reveals to the learner how much there is yet to learn (i.e. how little they know), Joel’s film about Jenn has a similarly dizzying, fractal quality to it. The more we see of this fascinating and captivating Jenn Shelton character, the less, we come to realize, we actually know about who she is.

    In the end, we may not know her at all, but Joel’s film is nonetheless compelling, beautiful, and worth every penny and minute of your life that it will cost you.

  5. Ric Moxley

    Before knowing who wrote the review (the e-mail content doesn’t show Author), I knew from the first two sentences that it must be Dakota Jones. :) Love your writing style, man.

  6. Kat

    I love running films but that first paragraph totally put me off watching this one, though I’m fascinated by Jenn. It sounds absolutely awful.

    1. MikeTebbutt

      You haven’t even seen it (and sounds like you never will), so you’ll never be able to form an educated opinion of if it was “poor” or good, but seems you already have.

      To the person above, it is only $8.99(not $12) to rent. Irunfar is free so maybe that will allow those who want everything for free to splurge a little and support someone trying to make a living

  7. Leah

    I would like to publicly say that I love Jenn for everything she is. She is one of the genuinely nicest people I have ever met. I will never forget sharing a swig of mescal with her at Kroger’s Canteen, served to us by the Roch Horton just before sunrise at that run thing called Hardrock. Even though it seems like a dream. Of course I refuse to go to our local dive bar in Durango “El Ranco” with anyone including Jenn. So maybe I am missing another side. What is the point to my comment? No point or argument. Just wanted to share a snippet for musing.

  8. Jason

    I rented it and enjoyed it. I didn’t mind the price and I’d much rather pay The Wolpert to make films than Hollywood via my local theater chain. The B&W didn’t bump me at all. I forgot about it about a minute into the movie.

    Regardless of what I’ve read about Jenn, she is interesting to watch and listen to. I didn’t think as deeply as Dakota did into what it meant to be Jenn, what she wants / fears, whether her life was sad, if she’s a broken toy, etc… I enjoyed the films brief deeper look into her life traveling in her van and running the Bear along with the comically inappropriate laughter and odd things she said.

    I enjoy movies about endurance sports, Cycling and Running especially and I’ll keep taking a chance on low-budget documentaries in that genre. (Joel, JB, Annika, Timothy, etc, etc, etc…)

    I feel my money was well spent on Outside Voices.

  9. John

    Just wanted to say I saw the movie and thought it was great. Crazy how even slower scenes like Jenn drinking soup and sitting in a van talking to herself can be made entertaining to watch. Very well done and definitely worth watching, even if you aren’t a runner.

  10. Angela M

    This movie was well worth the money I spent to BUY it. I know of Jenn Shelton like most others know OF her; through the famous book or her candid column in TrailRunner. Beautiful, sloppy, loud, dedicated; one foot in front of the other: I gather these perceptions only through readings and now this movie. She seems like a great person to have in a person’s “crew.” The insight that the filmmaker gave his viewers did not seem to offer anything new, that previous writings of Jenn Shelton haven’t already revealed.

    Even still, Joel Wolpert’s filmaking is beautiful! Outside Voices does not disappoint. The simpleness of slurping soup, crackling fire, a far of shrill in the wilderness, the cold beginnings of morning, even ripping open those stupid gels. He made all these things the true main character of the story! Not Jenn Shelton. Watch this movie desiring the scene, not desiring the character. I LOVED it Joel!

    1. Angela M

      I forgot to add that her laugh is what pushed the purchase button for me. Infectious laugh Jenn Shelton! And, perfect placement Joel Wolpert!

  11. Vincent

    Congratulations, Joel! Dare I say it – what a work of art. I have to admit that I was initially disappointed when I found out that the film was entirely in black and white but I ended up loving it. Totally evocative of Ansel Adams, the silvery black and white cinematography turned out to be pure magic. It just classes up the whole film and gives it a breathtaking timeless quality. I’m also a big sucker for the gorgeous time-lapse photography. The camera movement and editing are smart and super-smooth, very often amping up the humor or emotion in a scene.

    Jenn Shelton may be super-loud and irreverent but we’re also shown a more rarely-portrayed serious and contemplative side. The brief glimpses of vulnerability underneath her larger-than-life personality and superficially obnoxious exterior are wonderfully poignant and endearing. Some other scenes are just laugh out loud funny.

    I can’t say that I agree with Dakota’s comment that the shots of Jenn running are overly sexualized. It’s not unusual for the camera to focused on the hip movements of a runner in motion.

    As is typical of all of Joel’s efforts, the songs selected for the film are top notch.

    Not just a great running film, Outside Voices is simply a great short film. Period. That’s what I believe anyways. Well worth the price of a purchase, I love it and prefer it to In The High Country. Be sure to look out for the guest appearance by another trail running icon and previous subject of another film by the Wolpertinger.

  12. LJ

    It was either “Hail, Caesar” with a couple of friends or “Outside Voices”, and I decided to stay home and buy this movie. I am glad I did. I agree with Dakota that running on film is usually super boring, that’s why it is so essential that good running movies are not about running. Like this one.

    To me, “Outside Voices” is about Jenn Shelton’s passion for life. Sure, she does a whole lot of running in the movie, and it’s shot beautifully, but what stuck with me were the anecdotes and stories she told in between dropping snot bombs and coughing up a lung. I did not know anything about her when I started watching the movie — and as she herself correctly points out at the end of “Outside Voices”: I still don’t know her 45 minutes later, how could I? — but I saw a human being who is listening, really listening to the world around her, and who does not compromise, no matter what.

    “I obey something which sounds in me; constantly, but not consistently — sometimes it points, sometimes commands. When it points I argue, when it commands I submit” — Marina Tsvetaeva. There appears to be a whole lot of arguing going on in Jenn’s life, but the movie also showed me a person who does submit to what is calling her. Tsvetaeva wrote on inspiration: “Of a hundred lines, ten are given, ninety assigned (…) — lines I got by hard work, that is, by dint of listening.” Jenn got her ten given lines, and to me she is spending her time intently listening for the other ninety. Which, in my book, is not sad at all. On the contrary.

  13. Heather

    I thoroughly enjoyed watching the movie and reading this review, for the same reasons. They both made me feel a lot of things. After the movie, I felt sad, intrigued, admiration, amongst other things too. I think it was a well made film that wasn’t setting out to tell us what/how to feel and I turn left an unsettled feeling. Which happens in a lot of things in life. It was great. And this review is also pretty spot on. Well done to you both.

  14. Joe St. Lawrence

    Man I really didn’t care for this one at all. I can’t recommend it and don’t know where the praise is coming from. Yes the camera work is beautiful, but as Dakota put it, these scenes are just too mundane and almost painful to watch. I rented it on vimeo, but wish I had just gone for a run instead. There are much better films out there from Joel. Hate to give it a bad review cause I’m a big fan of Joel’s previous short films.

  15. KJA

    As a outdoor athlete girl the same age as Jenn, I absolutely loved this film. I mean, Joel NAILED it…I’m not sure what “it” is, but he nailed it. Thank you to both Jenn and Joel for somehow capturing something that is so hard to describe, so well. It may even save relationships. Last time I got home and couldn’t get off the floor because maybe surfing and climbing and long running don’t all have to happen in the same day with no food (oops)…I just reminded my boyfriend of this film. And he goes, “oh, right.”

  16. Annie

    This was the most refreshing running films I’ve seen in a long time. I often find it hard to relate to movies of elite athletes who seem to be having these spiritual experiences in the mountains every time they run and would probably never eat Taco Bell. I loved Jenn’s honesty and how she put her true self out there for all of us to see. I can relate to her so much as a 26 year old female trail runner.

  17. Mike Drake

    It’s a really sad movie. I went from being embarrassed for and by her. Mostly because what I saw I feel is an act. Most bad ass renegades don’t have to act like one. You know they are free. There is a lost little girl who’s living, what I can tell, a massive cover up of herself. No doubt she can run but the attention seeking is tiring. As for film maker and style, I could barely get though. Maybe the lack of story or meaning or maybe the character’s sadness and my constant embarrassment for her. I did not enjoy the black and white film. It seemed out of place for this ego driven montage. Maybe the way to many shots of her ass (literally) running. Maybe it was the sense that the only reason guys hang with her is to try and fuck her. I just felt really sad watching that nothing in her life is genuine. Maybe I am wrong but that’s how it came off. If I paid money to see this I would be very disappointed.

  18. Pete

    Finally saw this, it felt like another bittersweet story like we’ve seen with other ultra-running elites as they transition from their podium days. Most do some type of coaching, some have camps, a few direct races or write books but Jenn Shelton remains a spirited but sometimes melancholy solo wanderer as she ponders her only skill at age 31 (her words) “putting one foot in front of another.” (which is not really true because she writes a column for Trail Runner). Yes, this film leans toward the sad and lonely side, emphasized by the black/white filming, but JS appears to be leading life her way, and probably not much different than the usual vagabonds (by choice) that you see on the USA ultra circuit.

  19. Malcolm McLoughlin

    There is no one making running “essays” like Joel! Have loved all his work and this is no exception. I felt sadness, inspiration, and freedom. In a world full of soundbites and GoPro’s this is refreshing and unconventionally beautiful.

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