Indie Memphis Review: 'Touchy Feely'

Shelton's ambitious latest sags

Rosemarie DeWitt in “Touchy Feely,” an opening-night selection at the Indie Memphis Film Festival.

Photos Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Rosemarie DeWitt in “Touchy Feely,” an opening-night selection at the Indie Memphis Film Festival.

The fifth feature from Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, whose Indie Memphis connection dates back to her second, 2008’s “My Effortless Brilliance,” “Touchy Feely” will appear on the opening-night undercard at this year’s festival.

Disappointingly, the film plays a similar role in Shelton’s filmography so far.

Shelton’s two previous features, last year’s “Your Sister’s Sister” and 2009’s “Humpday,” each took a broad comedic premise and enlivened it with grit and spontaneity. The former is a cabin-in-the-woods love triangle involving two sisters and the brother of one’s recently deceased ex.

A massage therapist is unable to do her job when stricken with a mysterious and sudden aversion to bodily contact. Meanwhile, her uptight brother's foundering ...

Rating: R for language, some drug use and brief sexuality

Length: 90 minutes

Released: September 6, 2013 Limited

Cast: Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Allison Janney

Director: Lynn Shelton

Writer: Lynn Shelton

More info and showtimes »

The latter is a twist on the “bromance” genre, where two hetero buddies contemplate a challenge to make a sex video together. The result, in each case, is a surprisingly graceful marriage of screwball comedy and indie relationship drama.

Those were tightly constructed films in terms of character and setting. “Touchy Feely” is a more diffuse, more ambitious film, and it buckles under the added weight.

Rosemarie DeWitt, returning from “Your Sister’s Sister,” is a down-on-her-luck masseuse thinking about moving in with her bike-shop-owner boyfriend (Scoot McNairy), partly out of affection and partly out of necessity. Josh Pais is her older brother, a stuffy, socially awkward dentist with a failing practice where he’s assisted by his unhappy daughter (Ellen Page).

To Shelton’s general credit, she plops the viewer into her film worlds, without much in the way of exposition. But sorting out the relationships in this case is more confusing and frustrating than was probably intended.

Eventually, the new-age-y DeWitt and buttoned-up brother Pais undergo a mysterious switch. She finds herself repelled by human skin, which naturally impedes both her work and cohabitation plans. He finds himself with a healing touch that fills up his once-dormant waiting room.

This whiff of magical realism is new for Shelton, but the film doesn’t make much of it. The light satire suggested by the title never materializes, and the thematic payoff of having two very different siblings trade characteristics remains equally elusive.

Most damaging of all might be how short on incident this film is. Seemingly more scripted than Shelton’s other work, “Touchy Feely” lacks the improvisational energy of her prior films.

DeWitt and McNairy are fine, but the rest of the central cast — including a drop-in from Allison Janney as a flighty healer named Bronwyn — struggles to develop the same kind of ease and rapport.

At Shelton’s best — and there are moments of it here — you feel like you’re getting a peek into the lives of others; too often with this film, you’re too aware of watching actors acting, and searching.

“Touchy Feely” screens at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at Circuit Playhouse on opening night of the Indie Memphis Film Festival. Co-producer Mel Eslyn will attend and participate in a question-and-answer session after the film.

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