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'Touchy Feely' finds a filmmaker trying new things

With "Touchy Feely," filmmaker Lynn Shelton ("Humpday," "Your Sister's Sister") strips herself of her two greatest traits, to see if her work still works.

Josh Pais and Rosemarie DeWitt play distant sibling in "Touchy Feely." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Josh Pais and Rosemarie DeWitt play distant sibling in "Touchy Feely."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

‘Touchy Feely’
Director: Lynn Shelton
Stars: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The filmmaker Lynn Shelton excels at two things above most of her peers: hooky high-concepts that can be achieved on tiny budgets and uncannily realistic depictions of relationships. “Humpday” boasted both a great premise — straight dudes who've convinced themselves to do gay porn — and actors (Mark Duplass and Josh Leonard) whose onscreen friendship seemed genuinely deep and lived-in. With “Touchy Feely,” Shelton — as if to test herself — abandons these qualities.

The premise is big: A masseuse (Rosemarie DeWitt) suddenly finds herself repulsed by human touch. But unlike past films, she purposefully avoids turning this outlandish plot into farce, instead treating it with odd, if not exactly productive, seriousness. And instead of long, handheld hang-out sessions, it’s classically shot with tripods and close-ups. It more closely resembles Shelton’s for-hire TV work (such as episodes of “Mad Men” and “New Girl”) than her previous films.

Whether this is a good thing is another matter. Moving from contained chamber dramedies with three main characters to a more expansive ensemble approach —while still turning in a film that just barely cracks the 80-minute mark — it initially centers around DeWitt’s Abby. Pressured into moving in with her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy) and stressed by her family, she snaps.

But she’s not the only one in turmoil. Brother Josh Pais is so uptight and controlling, yet simultaneously so mousy, he’s like a breaking robot. This hasn’t done wonders for his daughter (Ellen Page), who works as his assistant at his dental practice, but isn’t allowed to do much of anything but stand awkwardly in place.

DeWitt greatly excelled opposite Emily Blut in Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” which capped off a greatly perceptive first two acts with a lazy musical montage. This is even worse: it’s all laborious set-up followed by quick, even lazier wrap-up. Still, remnants of Shelton’s gifts are peppered throughout. Though it never spends much time bro-ing down with its characters, scenes with a fellow massage therapist (Alison Janney) have a looseness that few other filmmakers achieve.

Shelton has a deep love for her characters, especially ones who are more traumatized and rootless than before. In “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” tended to mask their emotions behind jokes and evasions. Here, they bottle them deep down inside. Shelton has yet to find a way to dramatize suppressed feelings, but her compassion and generosity has few equals.

 
 
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