Lynn Shelton is an undeniably accomplished writer, editor, and director; her first film “We Go Way Back” won the grand prize at Slamdance in 2006. Since then she has distinguished herself through her astute observations of human relationships in all their weirdness and confusion. 2009’s “Humpday” focused on two male friends considering making a gay porn film together, and led to a remake being done in France. Her 2011 effort, “Your Sister’s Sister,” created some major buzz on the festival circuit.
Both films secured major distribution with Magnolia and IFC, respectively, cementing Shelton’s place in the firmament of indie darlings of the moment, alongside other mumblecore VIPs like the Duplass brothers (one of whom stars in both “Humpday” and “Sister”). That Shelton’s films take place in her adopted hometown of Seattle—second only in hipster cred to Brooklyn, and Portland—doesn’t hurt, either.
Her latest film “Touchy Feely” is thinner in terms of narrative, lesser conflicts are impacting her characters. The subject matter is still within her wheelhouse, to be sure: Rosemarie DeWitt plays a masseuse suddenly unable to touch people, while her brother (Josh Pais), a bumbling dentist, suddenly discovers he can heal his patients with a laying-on of hands. The switch in their abilities precipitates an adjustment in their family roles as well, with DeWitt’s character abruptly unsure of herself for what seems like the first time, and Pais’s character comically excited about various new agey methods he previously would have shunned.
It’s a mildly funny and mildly touching film, at times, but it’s also mildly annoying—too haughty to feel sincere, too self-conscious to feel realistic. “Touchy Feely’s” sound design alone is a study in overdetermined twee-ness; while intended to highlight the crackle of leaves and the sound of DeWitt’s character kneading a client’s back, the sound is so amped-up that it ends up unintentionally drowning out dialogue underneath such awkward business as DeWitt munching a sandwich. I don’t care how emotionally resonant a scene is if I have to listen to someone’s chewing the whole way through it.
We never really understand what’s awry with DeWitt’s character so it’s hard to follow her ups and downs as she navigates whatever has befallen her. Pais’s character is such a hopeless putz that it’s difficult to rally any excitement for him even when he realizes that the path to salvation lies in the home—and the bed—of a whacked-out Reiki diva (Allison Janney, the most convincing of the bunch). Ellen Page is completely wasted in the role of DeWitt’s niece (Pais’s daughter), though she gives her anemic role as much chutzpah as the script allows.
While there are certainly worse ways to spend an hour and a half at the multiplex “Touchy Feely” likely won’t make it onto anyone’s top-ten list at the end of the year. And yet Shelton’s improved ability to attract name actors to her projects, like Emily Blunt in “Sister,” means that she is gaining recognition for her work. Looking forward to her digging into the real substance of human relationships in her future films.