A FREQUENT CRITICISM of mumblecore films is that nothing really happens in them, which has always struck me as a weak line of reasoning. Life doesn't have a plot (spoiler!) and it's still pretty interesting most of the time. But Lynn Shelton's new film Touchy Feely tweaks the formula a bit: Nothing really happens, except for a few things that are really goddamn weird.
Paul (Josh Pais) and his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) are a morose family unit living in Seattle—just a quiet dentist and his quiet kid who quietly work together at Josh's dental practice. Wacky, free-spirited aunt Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a massage therapist who believes in elixirs and energy work; her outlook stands in clear contrast to that of her science-minded brother, who spends his days diligently scrubbing the teeth of his elderly patients. Meanwhile, shy niece Jenny is in love with her aunt's boyfriend, a grubby bike messenger-type (Scoot McNairy, who's perfectly cast as the kind of guy who's irresistible to a young woman, and slightly questionable to an older one).
One day, Abby develops a sudden aversion to human touch—problematic for a masseuse—and so she takes some time off work and spends it crying in the supermarket and freaking out her boyfriend. Meanwhile, her brother has discovered a mysterious ability to heal patients who have jaw pain—a strange gift that leads him toward the very world of touch and energy healing that Abby has fled.
Director Lynn Shelton has a knack for coaxing natural, lived-in performances from her actors, so it's no surprise that the performances here are top-notch. Allison Janney has a brilliant turn as a hard-edged energy healer (who, sensing the disturbance in Abby's Force, suggests that Abby give ecstasy a shot), and Page is painfully convincing as a shy young woman who's afraid to do what's best for herself and move away from home. (Unfortunately, Page is about five years too old for the part; and since Pais looks younger than his 55 years, they make for a not-very-convincing father/daughter duo.) This is DeWitt's film, though, and she renders the hippie-dippy character of Abby with empathy and depth.
Shelton is the Seattle-based filmmaker who, along with directing a few episodes of Mad Men and New Girl, wrote and directed 2009's thoroughly charming Humpday, about two straight male friends who try to make a sex tape to enter into the HUMP! film festival. Humpday begins with a silly idea—two straight dudes try to do it! In the butt!—but unpacking that premise leads to moments that are revealing, awkward, and hilarious. Shelton's next film, 2011's Your Sister's Sister, was a perceptive character study that threw a few complicated people together in a cabin in the woods and waited to see what happened—until a left-field plot device stirred the pot and disrupted the credibility of the whole endeavor. Touchy Feely runs into the same sort of trouble that Your Sister's Sister did: The characters are great, and their interactions feel authentic and well observed, but certain plot elements—a dentist with magic powers that heal TMJ?—are just so weird that it's hard to reconcile them with the natural, unfussy filmmaking that is Shelton's strength.