Lynn Shelton should feel right at home at Sundance, where her previous efforts Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister (one of my favorite movies of last year) found plenty of fans. Shelton was known for a very specific thing, and something that is right up Sundance’s snow-packed alley. Both her features are considered “mumblecore,” a movement of modern film defined by small casts (and usually smaller budgets), improvised scripts, and real life situations. Her latest movie, Touchy Feely is not that. It’s also not as good but, in the long run, that could be a good thing.
This movie, like Your Sister’s Sister stars the always amazing Rosemary DeWitt as Abby, a massage therapist who, days after agreeing to move in with her sweet slacker boyfriend Jesse (the dreamy Scoot McNairy) develops an intense aversion to touching anyone. That’s like a McDonald’s fry cook developing an allergy to whatever it is they put in those fries. Abby then moves in with her brother Paul (Josh Pais) a sad-sack dentist whose daughter (Ellen Page, sporting the world’s worst haircut) works with him, is in love with Jesse, and wants to get out of the house but doesn’t know how. Oh, and Paul has developed a magic touch, reenergizing his floundering practice by miraculously healing his patients.
As you can see, the cast is much larger than Shelton’s usual two to three actors and the script is written rather than made up on the spot. It seems that Ms. Shelton is turning into a “real” filmmaker. It’s not without mixed results. While there are many shots that are fantastic (especially the depiction of skin when Abby starts her anxiety) the narrative lacks a bit of form. Strangely enough trying to impose structure over her usual process has made it a bit more scattershot and less focused. It’s a little bit all over the place, with several stories fighting for control, but the characters are so winning and the actors are all so good that you enjoy the time you spend with them anyway.
Ultimately this is a story about reiki, the Eastern art of energy manipulation which Paul and Abby learn from Bronwen (an underused Alison Janney), a friend of Abby’s who seems to be the only one with her life all together. Each of the characters longs for connection and to heal something that has happened to them: Abby needs to work through her relationship phobias, Paul needs to open up to new experiences, and his daughter, Ellen Paige With a Bad Haircut, needs to get over her crush and move on with her life. Their proximity to other people, whether physically touching or not, altars their energy and the connections they find and sever with other people lead them to be able to connect both to themselves and their loved ones.
This is not the best movie Shelton has presented at Sundance, but it is definitely the most ambitions. With that ambition and her innate humanistic portraits of people in need it makes me a little sad that this isn’t her masterpiece but it assures me that, if this movie isn’t great, then the next one is bound to be amazing.
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