As we know from moisturizer commercials -- and are reminded by an unlikely source, Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely -- extreme close-ups of skin are not pretty, full of cracks and lines and bumps. We see these shots because Rosemarie De Witt plays Abby, a massage therapist whose emotional life is quietly deflating, in a film that sets out to explore the emotional crevices beneath its characters' skins.
Abby's slow fade is not surprising because she comes from a family of deflated people. Her nasal, slo-mo brother, Paul (Josh Pais), must be the most low-energy, deadly dull dentist in creation (no offense to dentists, but that's saying something). His subservient daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), masks her unhappiness beneath a placid look and soft, modulated voice. Page is terrific at showing the yearning beneath it all. But even Todd Solandz has created happier people.
Shelton avoids the trap of making a boring film about dull characters, but Touchy Feely develops other problems as Abby struggles with her reluctance to move in with her boyfriend (a sympathetic Scoot McNairy) and Paul responds to the energy-releasing Reiki treatments of Abby's touchier-feelier friend (Allison Janney). In part, the film suffers next to Shelton's earlier work. Your Sister's Sister -- with De Witt, Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass in an unexpected love triangle -- was such a smart, buoyant, beautifully realized twist on the romantic comedy that anything less would seem a letdown. Her 2009 film, Humpday, about two straight friends who agree on a dare to make a gay porn film, brought Shelton's fresh vision to wider attention.
But Touchy Feely's flaws are all its own. It offers Shelton's now-recognizable style: small, character-driven, set in Seattle. But despite the lifelike texture, these characters take abrupt turns and make romantic decisions for no convincing reason. They are surface detail without a core of reality. As odd as the menage in Your Sister's Sister was, its very unlikeliness, and the characters' pasts, made them seem vibrantly true to their own story. In Touchy Feely, every choice seems as arbitrary as the rumor that Paul can miraculously heal TMJ with a wave of his hands over a patient's jaw.
Shelton is still a remarkable filmmaker. There is a wide shot of two people walking across a bridge from opposite sides that is so rich with tension and grace that it feels distinctively hers. Her admirers will want to see Touchy Feely (on VOD and in theaters) even if its hollowness makes it less than her best.