No American filmmaker currently working is more skilled with on-camera improvisation than Lynn Shelton. Her previous two films, Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, were by no means perfect, but both were notable for their characters’ disarmingly credible rapport—the kind of real-time recalibration between and among individuals that’s nearly impossible to sit down and write. Touchy Feely ditches that approach entirely, and suffers the consequences. Without an improvisational buffer, in which actors feel their way naturally and uncertainly from moment to moment, Shelton’s scenario feels as painfully contrived as it is. She’s assembled a typically fine cast, including Your Sister’s Rosemarie DeWitt (whose work in that film was uncanny), but everyone flounders here. Indeed, the screenplay is so muddled that it’s hard to fathom what it’s trying to convey, despite a twin dose of magical realism that screams “high concept.”
For one thing, it takes a fair bit of energy at the outset to sort out who’s related to whom—and how, since Shelton (to her credit) is allergic to exposition. To break it down: DeWitt plays a massage therapist who’s thinking about moving in with her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy), while Josh Pais plays her brother, a dentist with a meager practice and a screwed-up daughter (Ellen Page). One day, DeWitt, who’s extremely New Age, inexplicably finds herself repelled by human skin, to the point where touching her clients sends her running to barf in the toilet. At the same time, Pais, a standoffish sort who’s the polar opposite of his sister, begins miraculously healing his patients simply by placing his hands on their jaws. Meanwhile, Page develops a romantic interest in McNairy, who’s frustrated by the fact that DeWitt can no longer stand to be near him.
That’s plenty of threads to manage, but Shelton has no clear idea of what to do with any of them. Page’s subplot is the most tender, and a scene in which McNairy attempts to console her without encouraging her (which may have been at least partially improvised) achieves a level of emotional authenticity that the rest of Touchy Feely sorely lacks. The whole sibling-switcheroo thing, however, goes nowhere, with DeWitt’s aversion to skin in particular playing like a Sundance-quirky variation on Julianne Moore’s toxin sensitivity in Safe. Story construction just isn’t Shelton’s forte (as the nonexistent third act of Your Sister’s Sister made clear), and without a sturdy framework or believable people, the movie just feels like an assortment of half-assed ideas vaguely organized around a nebulous theme. Sometimes, when directors try to stretch themselves, they only wind up bent out of shape.