Friday, January 16, 2015

Touchy Feely (2013)

Director: Lynn Shelton                                      Writer: Lynn Shelton
Film Score: Vince Smith                                   Cinematography: Benjamin Kasulke
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page and Allison Janney

Seattle writer-director Lynn Shelton has made a name for herself in independent films circles producing small, personal films that have also managed to gain a popular following. Touchy Feely is one of her later efforts and is something of a love letter to Seattle, taking on the eccentric nature of some of the community in a generous and thoughtful way, one that eschews stereotypes for well-rounded characters who, while a bit nutty, are still very believable. The film opens with massage therapist Rosemarie DeWitt working on a patient while the credits roll. At the end of the session her very satisfied customer says, “Will you marry me?” That evening she attends a dinner party at the home of her brother, Josh Pais, a dentist with a small practice that is slowly dwindling away because he can’t attract new clients. Pais is something of an autistic whose favorite place is in the x-ray lab at his office with the lights out. Living with him is his daughter, Ellen Page, who also works as an assistant at her father’s office and feels trapped into taking care of him rather than going to college and beginning her own life. Also at the dinner is DeWitt’s boyfriend, Scoot McNairy, who owns a bicycle shop in town.

The dinner is incredibly awkward but the characters don’t really react to it that way because it seems expected to them. DeWitt is looking for a new apartment, and when McNairy says she should move in with him, she finally agrees. The next day she visits her Reiki practitioner, Allison Janney, and everything is great. DeWitt, however, is visibly frightened to move in with McNairy and Janney, rather than advocating caution, tells her to go for it. But the next day at work, DeWitt suddenly becomes repulsed by her own skin and that of her clients and finally shuts down her office. Meanwhile Pais, who has almost no bedside manner with his patients, is simply cleaning the teeth of one of Page’s friends and miraculous cures his TMJ. Suddenly, instead of an empty waiting room, word of mouth has filled it up. DeWitt can’t get over her fears, though, and believes she needs to break things off with McNairy. But throughout the shots with her traveling around town Ron Livingston can be seen in the background, adding a mysterious dimension to the film. From there, things evolve in a surprising way that by the end makes perfect sense. While the film’s screenplay seems to revolve around DeWitt, it’s Pais who really commands the attention of the viewer.

The one thing that is immediately apparent about the film has nothing to do with the plot or characters. Lynn Shelton and her cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke inject the film with a tremendous number of shots of Seattle, both at night and in the daylight, that are carefully composed and keep the context of the film forward in the viewer’s mind. There are also a number of nature shots, still within the city, the image of which project the idea of Japanese nature paintings. Once scene in particular, when DeWitt is walking around the neighborhood, is striking in its close-ups of moss and insects and cracks in the sidewalk. There are also some close-ups of skin when DeWitt is going through her crisis that are striking as well. The criticism of the film is a bit incomprehensible to me, especially those who find the ending lacking resolution. It works as a character study, and yet has a compelling plot as well, and the actors are terrific. Perhaps you have to be familiar with the Northwest to completely fall in love with the film, but certainly doesn’t seem as though it should be a prerequisite. Nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Touchy Feely exhibits a bold confidence from its director that translates into a tremendous viewing experience. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who loves independent films. It’s one of the best.

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