The director Lynn Shelton has built a career on small human moments, looking at interpersonal dynamics in the ways that they’re really lived. In “Humpday” she captured male boastfulness and insecurity; in “Your Sister’s Sister” it was unrequited love, sibling jealousy, and a pregnancy for good measure.
Shelton’s new movie goes down a similar path. Her dramatic comedy “Touchy Feely,” which world-premiered Saturday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival, looks at the foibles of an extended family in Seattle, throwing in a dose of the New Agey not seen in her recent films.
Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a massage therapist in a promising relationship with a young bike mechanic (Scott McNairy). Her niece (Ellen Page) has put her dreams on hold as she lives at home with her father, Abby’s brother Paul (Josh Pais, playing a repressed suburban drip as you’ve rarely seen) and assisting in his floundering dental practice.
All their lives are thrown for a loop with the onset of two opposite but possibly related occurrences: Abby develops a body-aversion condition that suddenly makes her ill-suited to a career in massage therapy , while the uber-straitlaced Paul seems to acquire magical healing powers. As in many Shelton movies, each character reacts with something closer to good intentions than wise decisions.
“Touchy Feely” drew a mixed reaction at its inaugural screening from the distributors — the New Age premise and the Abby character came in for some criticism. But for all the grousing, Shelton still manages to get intimate human moments right, tipping a scene just enough toward comedy before tipping it back to how real people think and talk.
Shelton acknowledged that “Touchy” was more of a written piece than much of her earlier, more improvised work. That may be one of reason for the movie’s more earnest feel. She also says that the film, with its largely female protagonists, was more autobiographical. Some scenes, she said after a screening, “are just ripped from the pages of my life.” (You can watch video of her and DeWitt in the Los Angeles Times studio below; note DeWitt’s choice of her favorite Sundance movie. )
Shelton acknowledged in the video interview that she likes challenging herself with a high concept idea (e.g. “Humpday's” straight-men-making-male-porn conceit) and seeing where it goes once actors get on set and start improvising.
But her ultimate goal, she said Saturday, was more conventionally grounded.
"Being in touch with how people tick--observing and really understanding people,” she said at the screening. “It doesn't get talked about a lot. But that's what successful filmmaking comes down to.”