Review: Great ensemble cast makes Lynn Shelton's 'Touchy Feely' a gentle generous new age charmer
PARK CITY - When I saw "Humpday" at Sundance, I thought it was a smart and funny little movie, and I ended up reviewing it when the film finally opened in limited release. "Your Sister's Sister" was here last year, and I was really smitten with that one. It felt like there was an exponential jump from film to film by Lynn Shelton as a storyteller, and I wasn't surprised to hear that she had a new film here this year. Sundance obviously likes her work, and why not? When her films are at their best, they represent the exact sort of adult emotional honesty that I find most appealing in a modern filmmaker.
When Judd Apatow talks about letting his cast improvise, people immediately imagine comic actors lobbing one-liners at each other in an effort to steal each scene. In Shelton's films, the improvisation is more about grounding the needs of the story in language that is natural and unforced. Shelton's work is often funny, and I think she falls in love with her characters and loves to indulge them in the choices she makes about which take to use of certain scenes. But she is also capable of crafting an emotional moment that carries a startling amount of heft, and "Touchy Feely" seems more concerned with exploring characters than generating laughs. That's a good thing and there are plenty of moments in "Touchy Feely" that are simply character observation. There is certainly a plot in the film, but it's delivered in a way that never feels mechanical. Things unfold on their own schedule, and when the film finally reaches a sort of crescendo, it isn't something you see coming.
"Touchy Feely" tells the story of Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Paul (Josh Pais), siblings who are both going through real tests of faith. Abby is a massage therapist who one day realizes that she's repulsed by the thought of contact with anyone's bare skin. Paul is a dentist who is struggling to raise a teenage daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), the memory of his wife's death still a fresh wound for him. Abby is talking about moving in with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Just as Abby finds herself unable to stomach any contact with anyone else's skin, Paul suddenly finds himself able to heal pain in other people through simple touch. The first person he heals is Henry (Tomo Nakayama), a local musician whose TMJ kept him off-stage, and word spreads quickly. Paul is a closed off clenched-fist of a person, and at first, he can't believe that there's anything he's doing to help these people. It seems impossible to him.
As Abby tries to figure out how to work through her new-found phobia, this instant and powerful recoil that she feels each time she's about to make physical contact, skin to skin, Paul begins to come out of his shell and come back to life. It's obvious that when his wife died, he took a deep breath and he's been holding it ever since. Paul lives his life clinched, and watching him wake up and shake that off is pretty great. Pais is one of those actors who is always good in roles of any size, but who really shines when finally given this much material to play and this much room to invent. Many of his later scenes are with Allison Janney, who plays Bronwyn, a practitioner of Reiki. If you're like me and didn't know what that is, it's a Japanese massage technique that has to do with laying on of hands and life forces. To see Josh, a guy who is grounded in the literal work of being a dentist, try to open himself up to something as new age as Reiki, is actually sort of moving. I'm a firm believer that most people don't change after a certain age, but watching someone make the effort, seeing someone who is still willing to try and fight, is quite affecting.
Special mention has to be made of Scoot McNairy, who has proven with the appearances he's made in films like "Argo" and "Killing Them Softly," that he is a really gifted and versatile character actor. He disappears into his parts in a way that makes each character feel real and complete and separate. The guy he plays in "Argo" is totally different than the guy in "Killing Them Softly," and neither of them is anything like the guy in "Touchy Feely," who plays a very particular purpose in the dynamic. He's Abby's boyfriend, but Jenny is drawn to him, desperate for him. McNairy plays the guy as such a sincere and decent person that you can't fault him for the situation. He didn't try to make it happen, and he does everything he can to handle it the right way. I have a feeling McNairy is going to be a major presence in film in the very near future, and it's little wonder as we finally start to get a sense of just how good this guy is.
If I have a complaint, it is that this feels far less focused than the last two films from Shelton. I spoke to her today after the screening, and when I put that interview up, you'll hear her talk about a period in post-production where she wasn't quite sure what film she'd made. I think that's reflected to some degree in the final film. Not everything works together, but the best moment in the movie comes fairly late, and she uses a song performed by Tomo Nakayama in character to underscore what's happening with each of the characters. It might be the most effective moment of a character singing in a film since the first performance of "When Your Mind's Made Up" in "Once." In that moment, "Touchy Feely" connects, and that seems to be Shelton's greatest gift. She is absolutely on that list of filmmakers whose body of work is a priority for me.
"Touchy Feely" is one of the films looking for a distributor at this year's festival.