Lynn Shelton seems to work in the same general genre of films of other actor/directors like Mark Duplass (who perhaps by design she works with on occasion). The films are independent, have modest production values and feature some improvisation, using a cast that on the surface would appear to include some frequent collaborators but generally have solid ensembles in them. And generally when Shelton or Duplass (or his brother Jay) release a new film it is generally going to be worth your while, and here is hoping that Shelton's newest, Touchy Feely, is no exception.
The film is Shelton's follow-up to The Goonies, stars Rosemarie DeWitt (Promised Land), reuniting the two from Sister. DeWitt plays Abby, a massage therapist in Seattle who one day is mysteriously overcome with an aversion to bodily contact that causes her to suspend her practice. Coincidentally, Abby's brother Paul (Josh Pais, Arbitrage), is a soft-spoken and ultimately kind of boring dentist who also lives in Seattle, seems to have picked up Abby's healing touch, which is transmitted through to his patients and helps heal their oral maladies. While Abby's sudden issues with contact starts to hinder her relationship with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy, Argo), Paul's daughter Jenny (Ellen Page, Juno) deliberates on how to express her concealed feelings for Jesse.
Seeing the explorations of Abby and Paul through the film as they lose and gain (respectively) this almost mystical gift is fascinating. Abby's struggle to try and get her ability back is heartbreaking as it permeates through to other facets of her life. She senses when she loses it and wants it back dearly, and is almost crushed when it becomes an issue around Jesse. DeWitt's portrayal of them is quite good and well worth watching. On the flip side of it, the bigger surprise of the film for me was Pais' performance, which has to be one of the more entertaining ones I have seen in recent memory. Paul is soft-spoken, methodic and exceedingly modest. And when he finds out he can heal people (curing one patient's TMJ in fact) at first he is confused, and seeks out help for this. He wants to try and find out an articulate reason, or at least any reason at all. He seeks out Bronwyn (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back), Abby's boss and a more holistic energy healer. The almost introductory scene between Paul and Bronwyn's characters is laugh out loud funny, to the point of crying, done largely on Pais' improvisation. Paul continues to do other out of character things like take ecstasy or go to a club, usually received by the viewer to laughs, but when he becomes more aware of his gift, the almost childlike expression he has is marvelous. For me he was the best part of the film.
Almost under the radar for Touchy Feely is Page as Jenny. She serves almost as the film's center while her father and aunt go through these extremes in their lives. Her scenes with McNairy are intriguing and when she attempts to step up their interactions, the result winds up as one would expect it to. But the way Page handles it would appear to be letter perfect with her character, which wants more out of the world than to follow in her Dad's footsteps, and wants happiness beyond the life she leads. I came away impressed by her performance.
While the performances are good, but the story does tend to occasionally creak. I felt that the Page arc was a little poorly established to the point of almost being convenient. And the inclusion of DeWitt's husband Ron Livingston (Parkland) as Adrian was nice for a novelty, but it appears to be done for little more than stunt casting. Is Adrian a perspective beau? An ex-lover? Both? He appears in one scene with dialogue and I believe in the background in one other and it seems to squander his talents.
Despite a hiccup or two in the story, Touchy Feely is a sweet film which shows us the loss of purpose, the discovery of a new world and sometimes, that we just want the person that we have the most affection for to return it in kind. I continue to enjoy Shelton's work and the performances in it, and look forward to the next arrow in her creative sheath.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the look of Touchy Feely is natural and free of artifacts or haloing around the characters. Colors are natural and flesh tones are accurate, and film grain is easy to spot when viewing the feature. There is no noticeable image noise and edge enhancement is virtually nonexistent. The film's transfer is perfectly acceptable and without concern for this little indie.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is a touch surprising but the film does have its moments when employing all six channels. When an ecstasy-fueled Josh discovers a club, the bass gently rumbles the subwoofer and is a tad immersive. Dialogue is well-balanced in the front of the theater and while the directional effects and channel panning are on the scarce side, when they do pop up they are clear and convincing. The track does not get to do much nor should it be expected to, but what it does it does well.
Shelton, DeWitt and Pais reunite for a commentary on the film that is casual but does include a decent amount of information. Shelton recalls the occasional logistics headache during the production and what she wants from her actors, and even discusses what was excised from the film. More detail on the actors and story is touched on and appropriate fawning over a particular scene as it is being watched. While a decent mix of anecdotal and production recall, the track is hardly a prerequisite. Next are some outtakes (4:14), most of which are from the Janney/Pais sequence which when you see it, is a good thing. Four deleted scenes (6:31) are skippable, including one random one at a bus stop. Four interview segments with Janney, McNairy, Pais and Shelton follow, and they can either be played individually or together (31:50). The actors discuss how they got the roles and working with Shelton and to a lesser degree DeWitt as they recount what a Shelton set is like, and each expands on the characters a little more and working with Shelton as a director in general. "A Look at Touchy Feely" (3:04) is an AXS TV-produced piece on the film, and the trailer (2:20) completes things.
Touchy Feely includes generally good performances from its cast, including two excellent ones from Josh Pais and Ellen Page, in a story that is charming, funny and at times emotional. Technically, the disc is decent, and there are enough bonus materials to make potential repeat viewings interesting, and it is worth the time to check out this sleepy little production from an engaged cinematic voice.