Directed by Lynn Shelton
“You look wan,” Rosemarie DeWitt tells Josh Pais, and it’s the perfect description of this Josh Pais character in particular and many other Josh Pais characters in general. Pais specializes in quiet, soft-spoken men with uneasy smiles, a quality magnified in director Shelton’s new movie, in which he looks and acts like a sickly Ben Stiller. Pais plays a mild dentist working at a floundering practice alongside his frustrated daughter, played by Ellen Page, who discovers, secondhand from some very satisfied patients, that he has acquired some kind of healing touch that extends beyond that just-brushed clean feeling.
DeWitt plays his sister, and while she’s not immediately identified as such—Shelton lets the movie’s relationships reveal themselves slowly—it should be obvious, because DeWitt has become indie movies’ premier player of people’s sisters. She’s a massage therapist who, just as Pais discovers his newfound power, loses her ability to touch anyone; the thought of it makes her sick. Much of Touchy Feely plays out like a long-form and effects-free version of powers-discovery scenes from an X-Men movie. Specifically, DeWitt and Pais are like an inverted Rogue and Wolverine: she can’t touch people because of how she feels, not because of what the touch will do to them, while his healing power affects others, not his own skin (in which he still appears hugely uncomfortable; Pais performs some fine physical comedy when he goes to a professional healer for lessons).
Shelton’s sensitive, refreshingly non-satirical approach balances out the high concept for much of the movie but then winds up tilting it back toward inconclusive naturalism. Touchy Feely is so busy trying to figure out how real people might act in a fantastical situation (confused, non-confrontational) that it neglects some details: the dentist-office environment is weirdly unconvincing, and the movie’s open ending feels like one of the character’s sentences, which often trail off a word or two before they end. It’s an engaging film—but it also feels like a solid Aimee Bender short story with the last page or two torn out.
Opens September 6