The closest she came, for me, was her last film, “Your Sister’s Sister” (2011), a superbly acted mumblecore comedy about a sisterly triangle with a wounded fellow in the rural isolation of an island getaway.
Her new film, “Touchy Feely,” sounds like it should be a comedy as well but she plays everything dead seriously. I mean dead as as in drama without much happening and characters you can’t possibly care about. You never seen such long faces and pregnant pauses in a lifetime of movie-going.
It’s worse than touchy feely; it’s an emotional stew made with all the wrong ingredients. There are fine actors in this film. (An actress herself, Shelton certainly attracts good casts to her indie projects.) But nearly everyone looks lost.
“Your Sister’s Sister” star, Rosemary DeWitt, plays a massage therapist who suddenly develops a strong aversion to touch. Yep, sure sounds like a set-up for comedy but it isn’t played that way. Indeed DeWitt’s Abby not only can’t bring herself to touch a client, she must run to the bathroom to vomit when she does.
Meanwhile, as a kind of supernatural tradeoff, her anal-retentive dentist brother Paul (Josh Pais, all too good at portraying joylessness) abruptly develops a “healing touch” that miraculously cures patients of a chronic jaw pain known as TMJ.
He’s doing nothing different but word spreads so that his usually empty waiting room is jammed with new patients waiting for his miracle cure. Again the movie doesn’t try to wring any laughs from this situation.
Of course, an audience can’t help noticing that both transformations came about only after Abby’s current boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy) — a rebound for her from a previous relationship that comes into focus only late in the film — suddenly asks Abby to move in with him.
He does so at a family dining table with Paul and his emotional stunted daughter and dental technician Jenny (a much too demure Ellen Page). So Abby finds herself saying yes but you sense extreme reservations — which presumably leads to her occupational meltdown.
Meanwhile Jenny is stymied in life, living and working with her dad in a job she probably hates, But Shelton leaves no clues as to what causes this repression.
There is another character in this movie, Abby’s close friend, Bronwyn (Allison Janney), a practitioner of Reiki, the Japanese relaxation technique. Her use of Reiki on Paul — his sister sends him to her to loosen him up, if that’s possible — is as close as the movie comes to a comic scene but even here any laughs are throttled back in the straight-ahead approach by the actors.
A few incidents toward the end come out of left field, a not uncommon occurrence in a Shelton screenplay, yet these don’t ring entirely true. In the cases of a scene between Jenny and Jesse and then a final one between Jenny and an otherwise peripheral character played by newcomer Tomo Nakayama (of the indie rock band Grand Hallway), they feel like scenes that fell into the film from a completely different movie.
What Shelton does do well here is get her entire cast to offer up unguarded moments in the lives of their characters, those awkward beats where no one knows quite what to say or do. This may come about through the semi-improvised style Shelton likes, where her actors perhaps are truly uncertain what to say or do next.
Whatever the case, the actors often have that deer-caught-in-a-headlight look.
The location work in Shelton’s native Seattle is terrific as all interiors feel truly lived in — Paul and Jenny still live in the old family home — while exteriors have a nice chilly look that befits the rainy city.
Opens: September 6, 2013 New York, Sept. 13 L.A. (Magnolia Pictures)
Production Company: Most Favored Nations
Cast: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Tomo Nakayama
Director-screenwriter-editor: Lynn Shelton
Producer: Steven Schardt
Executive producers: Nancy Black, Dashiell Gantner, Vallejo Gantner, Trey Beck, Dave Nakayama
Director of photography: Benjamin Kasulke
Production designer: John Lavin
Music: Vinny Smith
Costume designer: Carrie Stacey
R rating, 87 minutes