Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais are terrific as the co-leads of a brilliant ensemble cast. DeWitt plays Abby, a free-spirited massage therapist who is suddenly overcome by an aversion to contact with skin, rendering her incapacitated in both her profession and her love life with her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy).
Pais plays her brother, Paul, a quirky, uptight, and emotionally unavailable dentist whose daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), helps his failing dentist practice find its feet when word begins to spread that he has a magical healing touch.
The two siblings start out about as different from one another as is possible. But over the course of the film, as Abby and Paul navigate their own personal journeys and begin to discover and really delve into who they are, we see their relationship with each other, the relationships within their families, and their own relationship with themselves, start to blossom beautifully.
No praise is too small here for the performances from the entire ensemble, from DeWitt and Pais right on through to Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, and Tomo Nakayama, with delightful appearances from Allison Janney, and a small but important turn from Ron Livingston.
The contrasts and comparisons with Your Sister’s Sister are certainly interesting to consider here, and are something I keep returning to in thinking about Touchy Feely. One of the most pleasant surprises during last year’s awards season was DeWitt, Mark Duplass, and Emily Blunt winning the Best Ensemble Cast award at the Gotham Awards. It was a pleasant surprise not because their performances weren’t exceptional, which they were, but because as terrific as that cast was, it was really a cast of three, and they were up against much larger casts like Moonrise Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook.
This year, I will definitely be rooting for Touchy Feely to be nominated, and hopefully go on to win, in the same category. Shelton has really outdone herself in bringing such a large cast together and weaving each of these characters’ stories so brilliantly and beautifully.
McNairy and Page’s supporting performances, in particular, are worth significant notice alongside DeWitt and Pais’ leads. In my opinion, Page hasn’t been given a character this strong and this original since Juno or Hard Candy (though, I admit, I have not yet seen The East, which I cannot wait to watch). She boldly brings Jenny to life as a young woman who feels the weight of her father’s troubles upon her own shoulders, and in many ways seems to have been forced into adulthood too quickly. And, much like her father, she too has difficulty in dealing with her emotions.
As ever, Scoot McNairy is simply amazing. He has equally very much been deservedly on the rise in recent years, and continues to prove here just why that rise is so well-deserved. He is an incredible talent, the likes of which have not been seen in emerging actors in years. Watching the strain that Abby’s newfound aversion puts on their relationship makes for powerful viewing, and this is really Shelton in her stride, pushing the boundaries and testing the limits of relationships.
Rare is the film, independent or otherwise, that has such fully-fleshed characters, and such talented actors, on all sides. Tomo Nakayama’s small role as Henry, a shy friend of Jenny, is exemplary of that. The part is wonderfully crafted, and is bolstered in no small part by a remarkable acoustic performance of ‘Horses’, played and sung by Nakayama himself, written specifically for the film.
The look of the film, too, is entirely different to Shelton’s last. Collaborating once more with her frequent DP, Benjamin Kasulke (Your Sister’s Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed), the two bring a whole new look to the screen in contrast. Whereas the camerawork on Your Sister’s Sister felt almost like a first-person perspective, Touchy Feely manages to maintain that intimacy with a much warmer look to the shots. And I think that that matches perfectly with the other aspects of the film, from characters and plot on down.
Shelton herself notes that her past work has often been driven by improvisation, and she changed tack for Touchy Feely, with roughly 85% of the film scripted to the tee. Clearly, it’s worked. She has shown herself capable of directing small casts within contained locations, and giving them freedom to play those characters out as they see fit. And here she proves herself as an incredibly talented writer-director on the opposite end, bringing together a larger cast, with greater locations, and a tightly-written script.
Touchy Feely is one of the best dramas I’ve seen in years, and the moments of comedy that go hand-in-hand with the drama are nothing short of hilarious. Shelton cuts a perfect balance between levity and sincerity here, the emotional resonance of which is, in large part, due to her ability to bring out the best possible performances from her entire cast.
With her directorial follow-up, Laggies, set to star Anne Hathaway, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, and Mark Webber, expected to shoot later this year, and on her biggest budget to date, we can only expect more good things to come from Shelton further down the line. She remains a director whose films are essential viewing.