It’s always exciting to see a Seattle native do well as we have with director Lynn Shelton. Her star has been on the rise since her breakout film Humpday cleaned up a slew of indie awards after its Sundance premiere in 2009. Last year she was chosen to open the Seattle International Film Festival with her film Your Sister’s Sister starring Mark Duplass, Rosemarie Dewitt, and Emily Blunt. And this year Shelton was once again in Park City’s Eccles Theatre for the world premiere of her newest feature film, Touchy Feely, along with an eager sold-out crowd.
In a lot of ways Touchy Feely is a departure from Shelton’s established brand, though it still shares some hallmarks like mostly improvised dialogue and her penchant for reusing actors from previous films. But the film has a different way of sitting with the viewer than her past films have. It’s uncomfortable at times. Dealing with depression as a subject matter should be uncomfortable, and as Shelton gains a wider fan-base and larger catalog, her films carry more expectations. These expectations are the reason why Touchy Feely will either be Shelton-enthusiasts favorite or least understood film. Some will delight in seeing the director grow and experiment, and thankfully she isn’t restrained from doing so. This film is daring and raw, I agree with one of the film’s stars, Tomo Nakayama, that Touchy Feely is Shelton’s most ambitious project to date. Nakayama is a popular and talented Seattle musician who he was gracious enough to answer some questions for me.
Touchy Feely’s plot concerns a successful massage therapist named Abby (Dewitt) who suddenly becomes repulsed by the touch of skin. Meanwhile, her brother Paul (Josh Pais) is an apprehensive dentist dealing with his own crippling lack of social awareness and codependent relationship with his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page). Paul is the type of man who doesn’t understand that which he can’t see, but just as Abby’s life begins to crumble, he begins to flirt with ideas of spiritual connection and healing. The thing which these characters share is that they’re collectively and privately in a state of transition, a transition that has the potential to elevate or ruin them, along with their relationship to each other. For a film about people growing and crashing, much of their emotional development is not said aloud. This is the case in the restrained way the characters speak to each other, or even as things seem to develop off screen, forcing the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Sometimes developments occur in a way that seems without motive, but as the underlying emotions of self-doubt and depression become clearer so, too, does everything else.
For instance, Abby’s sudden aversion to skin is prefaced only by a booming massage practice and her boyfriend asking her to move in with him. Nothing seems problematic. In fact Dewitt even shared in the Q & A after the film that she initially struggled to understand her character. Shelton had to reassure her that it was okay because the character didn’t understand herself. Someone like Shelton, who has demonstrated a perceptive understanding of the human spirit, didn’t simply forget to explain a drastic leap in character. Instead, she created a film that acts almost as a hologram of the complicated concepts it forces us to confront. Nakayama was impressed by the delicate way in which Dewitt portrayed depression and expanded on her answer during the Q & A telling me, “The thing about depression is often times it’ll hit you when everything ostensibly is going well in your life. It kind of puts you in a stupor, and it’s a hard thing to explain to people around you, because you can’t quite put a finger on what the problem is yourself.”
Nakayama touched on the marked absence of dialogue in relation to the amount of plot and what it does for the film. Firstly, the audience has space and time to really appreciate the cinematography of another Seattle talent, Benjamin Kasulke. The shots demonstrated a quiet admiration and understanding of the city, and his work on the film has been unanimously praised. The locations were at once familiar and yet distinctly different from those expected of a Seattle-based film. With pronounced visuals and sound in place of dialogue, Nakayama cited the way in which “the slightest expressions by the actors” were allowed to move the film forward. In this, he described Touchy Feely as, “kind of a haiku compared to the novels of Your Sister’s Sister or Humpday.”
For his part, Nakayama’s background is in music. He and Shelton first met during their days working on MTV’s web-series $5 Cover, and he later made a huge impression on her after she saw him perform Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away.” Shelton recruited Nakayama to recreate their concert experience for the film at just a time when he was starting to lose faith in pursuing music professionally. Instead of securing the rights to the song, the two worked closely to find one of his original songs that better fit the sequence. His performance has garnered a lot of positive attention and acts as an emotionally charged catalyst for the characters to finally confront the things they’ve been avoiding. I asked him what it was like to suddenly be acting opposite Ellen Page and whether or not nerves got the best of him. Nakayama said that the cast never made him feel like their years in front of a camera somehow made him less of a cast member, although, there was of course some intimidation that comes with trying anything for the first time. Endearingly, he added that for a moment he felt like he “was shaking the tambourine for the Beatles,” but that the feeling quickly subsided as he realized everyone on the set was incredibly kind and down-to-Earth.
Touchy Feely is an unusual and lovely film, and much like life it might not deliver what you think it should at the moment you want it to. It is sometimes quiet when you want the characters to scream what they’re feeling from the top of their lungs. There is room for interpretation. Nakayama said it perfectly, “That’s kind of the beauty of this film… It’s a very subtle, quiet film, yet it’s also the most ambitious thing Lynn’s done. I find that tension really beautiful.”