Something of a Sundance darling, Lynn Shelton mastered the art of the micro-drama with Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, two small indies with high concepts and wonderful, personal performances thanks in large part to a strong screenplay.

This time around we get Touchy Feely, a slightly more ambitious, far less successful, project from Shelton, starring Rosemarie DeWittJosh PaisEllen PageScoot McNairyAllison Janney and Ron Livingston. The ambition gets lost somewhere amongst this large and talented cast, Shelton retreating to some worn plot contrivances in the third act.

Abby (DeWitt) is a massage therapist, and everything is going great. Her energy is very good, so says her Reiki master Bronwyn (Janney). Then her boyfriend Jesse (McNairy) asks her to move in with him, while at dinner with her dentist brother Paul (Pais) and his gloomy daughter Jenny (Page). Not long after, Abby cannot properly feel her patients, or anyone else in her life. What exactly has happened to Abby is never explained, but we understand the metaphor just fine. She immediately falls into a long depression, virtually disappearing as a character, barely present in the middle portion of the film. Meanwhile, Livingston pops around the edge of the frame a few times, a recognizable face with no lines. By the time we find out who he is, it feels far cheaper than it should.

A parallel plot line concerns Paul, a sad shack who miraculously cures a friend of Jenny’s of his TMJ (i.e. a bad jaw disease), allowing him to sing again. Solid word of mouth propels Paul’s once-faltering dental practice into the go-to spot for “TMJ cure” care. Though an intriguing set-up, a pronounced lack of explanation (once again) and active plot movement cause anything compelling to come and go with the rest of the film.

The central delight here is Pais, who is given a plenty of screen time here after of years of solid supporting turns in everything from Sex and the City to Synecdoche, New York. His rigid performance is inspired, Paul moving like a wooden stick man just learning how to his legs. His lines just barely slip out of his mouth in a cautious whisper while his eyes glaze over with a pedantic rhythm. Watching this character grow and find something to live for is a true joy, perhaps the only fully-formed piece of this narrative puzzle.

For the most part, it feels like Shelton, though determined to take on some bigger creative risks, is playing it safe the whole time. Unlike her previous work, these characters feel trapped within the devices she has built for them. Concepts are not expanded on, but obeyed. Because of this, any pathos or real character investment is hard to maintain.

It’s an aggravating misstep for such a promising filmmaker. There’s an engaging character study somewhere inside Touchy Feely. It’s a shame we never get a chance to see it.

Grade: C-

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