Opens Fri., Sept. 13 at Harvard Exit. Rated R. 90 minutes.
What compelling mysteries might be quietly thrumming inside the world of the dentist’s office? It is characteristic of the wistful, daydreamy universe of Lynn Shelton’s films that this unlikely question (has anyone outside the dental profession ever asked it?) makes up part of her latest project. Touchy Feely is the stubbornly—and, I think, wonderfully—low-key follow-up to Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, the partly improvised comedies that put Shelton on the indie-movie map. This new one is again shot in Seattle, Shelton’s hometown. Two siblings experience unexplained eruptions in their professional skills: Massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, from Your Sister’s Sister) is suddenly repulsed by the touch of human skin, and dentist Paul (Josh Pais) develops magical healing powers that can cure his patients’ jaw problems.
These phenomena are suspiciously related to the everyday issues afflicting the two, as Abby has been dawdling over an invitation to move in with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy), and Paul has passively allowed his practice to dwindle because of his super-awkward manner. Meanwhile, Paul’s college-age daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) is trapped in her job as a dental assistant, and carries around an unrequited crush on someone who probably won’t return the feeling.
Except for the magical-realist touches, this story does not break new ground, and its resolutions are not surprising. But in the film’s exactly observed living rooms and offices, something human is going on, in a way too many movies don’t get. Maybe this film is about the need to see people in a new way, which also describes Shelton’s deep-tissue work with actors. For instance, veteran character actor Pais has dozens of movie and TV credits, yet this is a breakout role for him (if the word “breakout” applies to a movie this languid). And Page, easily typed as a brittle comic performer after Juno, has never been more vulnerable and touching.
If Touchy Feely were a European film and had subtitles, it would probably get better reviews; it has audience-friendly moments, but mostly this is about mood and place. And speaking of place, Shelton’s filming in Pugetopolis is never pictorial, but always sunk into authentically lived-in locations. You’ve been to this dentist’s office before, though you might never have suspected what went on there. (Note: Shelton and actor/musician Tomo Nakayama will appear at the Friday- and Saturday-evening screenings.)