Touchy Feely: Sundance Review

Touchy Feely

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Lynn Shelton)

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 dental practice receives new life when clients seek out his “healing touch.” Cast: Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Josh Pais.

Shelton's latest is warm but less endearing than its predecessors.

Rosemarie DeWitt stars in writer-director Lynn Shelton's film about a massage therapist who develops a strong aversion to touch.

PARK CITY -- Though its log line -- a massage therapist develops a strong aversion to touch -- sounds like a setup for easy comedy, Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely takes its subject's distress seriously, treating it as a metaphor for fear of commitment. Laughs come less frequently here than in Humpday and Your Sister's Sister, but the writer-director's empathy for floundering characters is intact; the film should be warmly, if not rapturously, received by her fans.

VIDEO: THR's Sundance 2013 Diaries                       

Rosemarie DeWitt is Abby, the therapist in question, and her problem arises suddenly: One day before a massage, she becomes fixated on the texture of skin on her knee. She subsequently finds herself unable to touch her client without running off to vomit; when she goes, anxiously, to see her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy's Jesse), she bolts before he can kiss her. What we notice, and Abby seemingly doesn't, is that this sudden phobia has arrived immediately after Jesse asked her to move in with him.

In an odd and not entirely convincing parallel, Abby's loss is her brother Paul's gain. Paul (Josh Pais), a joyless dentist whose practice is close to failure, finds that through routine cleanings he is able to cure patients of the chronic jaw pain known as TMJ. He's doing nothing different, but soon his waiting room is full and a grateful clientele is showering him with gifts.

This magical zero-sum scenario resonates with the film's interest in the energy-balancing beliefs of Reiki, the Japanese relaxation technique. Abby's close friend Bronwyn (Allison Janney) is a practitioner, reading people's energy and making herbal potions; in the film's funniest moment, Bronwyn attempts a session with Paul, a man destined never to be at ease on a massage table. (Pais' performance, though entertaining, is noticeably heightened compared to those around him; scenes of his home life with daughter Jenny, played naturalistically by Ellen Page, don't always ring true.)

PHOTOS: The Scene in Park City

Two tablets of Ecstasy, offered by Bronwyn as a means of loosening Abby up, promise high jinks but instead lead to a soul-searching walkabout that threatens to cause irreparable harm to her relationship with Jesse. This sequence and other climactic encounters give Shelton a chance to be “touchy feely” in a less literal sense, offering some of the tense but unguarded emotional moments she does so well.

Production Company: Most Favored Nations

Cast: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Tomo Nakayama

Director-Screenwriter-Editor: Lynn Shelton

Producer: Steven Schardt

Executive producers: Nancy Black, Dashiell Gantner, Vallejo Gantner, Trey Beck, Dave Nakayama

Director of photography: Benjamin Kasulke

Production designer: John Lavin

Music: Vinny Smith

Costume designer: Carrie Stacey

Sales: Rich Klubeck, UTA; Josh Braun, Submarine

No rating, 87 minutes