Trading her improv-based filmmaking style for a more traditional screenplay-grounded model, Lynn Shelton delivers an uneven mix of half-formed conflicts in “Touchy Feely.” Set in her hometown of Seattle, this mystifying dramedy involves a masseuse who develops an unexplained repulsion toward human skin, a fuddy-duddy dentist spontaneously granted the healing touch, and a handful of others affected by a sudden energy shift in their lives. It’s not much to go on, but the promise of Shelton’s previous features, “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” should draw optimistic auds, just as it did this higher-caliber cast.
Peculiar in the way it expects auds to figure out the basics — characters, settings, situations — “Touchy Feely” takes the time to establish Abby (DeWitt) as a successful massage therapist, then cuts to a family kitchen where she and three others make small talk. The awkward older fellow is her brother, Paul (Josh Pais); the casual young woman is his daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page); and the scruffy third wheel is Abby’s b.f. Jesse (Scoot McNairy) — though it’ll take auds rather more detective work than it should to sort out these connections, likely a carryover from Shelton’s unscripted earlier work, where exposition is often delivered on the run.
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The figure-it-out-as-you-go approach proves too oblique here, as the film fumbles for strands worth following. Jesse invites Abby to move in with him, which could potentially lead somewhere, but doesn’t. Later, while sitting on the toilet, Abby picks at her knee, and notices that skin — which she touches daily in her line of work — is kinda gross (especially when filmed with a hi-def macro lens). This discovery implies the need for either a career change or a cure for her sudden aversion, neither of which is provided in the haphazard script. Likewise, the pic attracted such eclectic collaborators as Allison Janney and Page, but gives them too little to do.
Whether by coincidence or some sort of greater karmic design, at virtually the same moment Abby finds physical contact revolting, her dentist brother Paul gains the miraculous ability to heal pain, particularly as it manifests in the jaw. Virtually overnight, patients begin flooding his previously deserted office like pilgrims to a shrine. The two siblings couldn’t be more different in their personalities or beliefs, which seems to be the point: Though their appearance and acting styles essentially belong in separate movies, they represent a yin-yang dynamic, and when the balance shifts for one character, it upsets the other.
On the sensitive end of the spectrum, DeWitt’s screen presence is open-minded, deeply empathetic and intuitive. Her every look draws auds into her character’s unusual personal conundrum; Pais, by contrast, is a gifted physical comedian who amuses with routines that verge on the vaudevillian, but hint at little emotion. His skeptical visit to Abby’s spiritual adviser is funny, but he doesn’t seem to live in the same world as his co-stars.
Considering the pic’s interest in holistic hocus-pocus, this world defies traditional storytelling logic, presenting receiving-end challenges compounded by Shelton’s awkwardness as editor in conveying location or time. At certain points, the pic lingers on a scenic shot of Seattle for half a minute, implying what seems like a great passage of time, only to cut to a scene later the same day. Elsewhere, the film withholds exteriors, causing inadvertent confusion, as in an orphan scene between DeWitt and real-life hubby Ron Livingston set heaven-knows-where, or the uninentionally alarming reveal of nice-guy Jesse’s house, which looks like a crack den.