Dentist, Heal Thy Sister (And Vice Versa)

Sep 5, 2013
Originally published on September 6, 2013 2:40 pm

Doe-eyed, dewy and rosy, the beguiling Rosemarie DeWitt might easily have gotten stuck playing straight-arrow sidekicks like the one opposite Anne Hathaway's unhinged druggie in Rachel Getting Married. But DeWitt also has a proud hawk's nose and a quicksilver range that runs from earnest to loose cannon to fiery — a range that has landed her more venturesome roles like Don Draper's boho mistress on Mad Men. The off-kilter beauty that may keep her off Hollywood's A-list will also likely earn her the same steady indie employment that Catherine Keener has enjoyed for decades.

As the recently dumped lesbian who duped Mark Duplass into the sack for the sake of his, um, genetic material, DeWitt pretty much walked away with Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister, despite having to work around the luscious aura of Emily Blunt. Now she returns in Shelton's latest, Touchy Feely, playing Abby, a Seattle massage therapist suddenly unable to tolerate physical contact with anyone — let alone her devoted, and understandably bewildered, younger boyfriend (Scoot McNairy).

The disoriented Abby returns to her childhood home to live with her uptight dentist brother, Paul (Josh Pais, emitting timid squeaks) and his daughter slash assistant, Jenny (Ellen Page). Like Abby, father and daughter are stalled in unfulfilled inertia — until Paul discovers some unorthodox healing powers that expand his shrinking practice overnight.

So: family in crisis, primed for personal growth, you know the drill. And if you're not paying close attention, Touchy Feely might seem to play out like a standard if rambling dramedy of transformation.

Shelton is more observant than she is deep, and her filmmaking can be undisciplined, but the movie's rambling, episodic rhythms do seem in tune with the nebulous stasis that infects everyone in Abby's orbit. These people are all vaguely off course, none more so than Abby and her nervous Nellie of a brother; one's a free spirit with nowhere to go, the other a mouse locked miserably away in his unused body.

What's different here is Shelton's joshing affection for practitioners of the flannel-shirted New Age healing therapies of her beloved Pacific Northwest. "Your energy's off," Abby's serene, dirndled mentor Bronwyn (Allison Janney) tells her — and for once, we're invited neither to snicker nor particularly to believe in the innate powers of reiki massage. You just have to believe, rather, that these walking wounded believe — and that their commitment to weird signs and portents might spur them to take control of their faltering destinies.

The cast is more than game. DeWitt's Abby is earnest and searching and a little bit nuts, but we're never encouraged to see her as dumb, credulous or pathetic. When she meets someone from her past (played by DeWitt's real-life husband, Ron Livingston) who may help her to unlock the source of her ennui, she leans in, by some alchemy of instinct and intelligence.

And Pais is an inspired physical comedian who knows not to establish an ironic distance from his character's abject sincerity: It's funny, but also touching, when Paul surprises his amused healer by curling up like a fetus on her massage table.

To hell with rational exploration of childhood trauma, these head cases might be saying: Not since Jane Campion's wonderfully warped Sweetie has a movie so artfully demonstrated that a little magical thinking, or some creative appropriation of pop-culture symbols, or a bit of attention to the signals of the body can propel a lost soul to feel her way toward renewal. In Touchy Feely, faith — and hey, maybe a little therapeutic drug abuse — don't have to be justified. They just have to get you up and running.

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