By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 7, 2013 at 5:29PM
Magnolia Pictures is back in business with Seattle auteur Lynn Shelton, buying world rights for her fifth feature, the well-acted relationship comedy "Touchy Feely," which debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival. (Our video interview with Shelton and star Rosemarie DeWitt is here.) Magnolia released her 2009 breakout comedy "Humpday," starring Mark Duplass, who co-starred with DeWitt in Shelton's last film, "Your Sister's Sister."
DeWitt's role in that film earned an Independent Spirit Awards Best Supporting Actress nomination. "Touchy Feely" also stars Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston and indie rock icon Tomo Nakayama (Grand Hallway).
For Shelton, "Touchy Feely" marks her most personal film since her 2006 debut "we go way back." While Shelton's last two Sundance entries, the entirely improvised "Humpday," and 80% improvised "Your Sister's Sister," focused on observing male/female relationships, this one stars DeWitt as the writer-director's alterego. Shelton wrote a script--"this one is from the inside out"-- and cast a strong ensemble, who mixed script and improvisation as they went. "Lynn is the container and orchestrator," said DeWitt, "she gives the actors and crew tremendous freedom."
The breakout of the film is Pais, who Shelton met after a Tribeca screening of Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give." "I really discovered the character as we were shooting," said Pais ("Arbitrage"). But everyone shines, including improv newbies McNairy, Page and Janney, who was recommended by Catherine Keener as a replacement when she couldn't schedule her role. Keener also connected Shelton with Page, literally, on a car speakerphone. Page said she felt "humility and excitement" when she saw "Your Sister's Sister." Shelton met Livingston at a condo party at Sundance.
The film is more intricately plotted than Shelton's last films, as a brother (Pais) and sister (DeWitt) each deal with life changes in their jobs as dentist and masseuse, respectively. His practice suddenly comes to life when patients believe that he possesses healing powers, while she ditches her clients when she feels nauseous at the idea of touching human skin. She's having doubts about whether to move in with her boyfriend (McNairy) or with her brother and neice (Ellen Page). As Shelton focuses a digital camera on each actor for long repeated takes, anything can happen.
The film was produced by Steven Schardt.