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Originally published September 12, 2013 at 3:05 PM | Page modified September 15, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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‘Touchy Feely’: Fresh strokes from filmmaker Lynn Shelton

A movie review of “Touchy Feely,” Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s latest comedy-drama starring Rosemarie DeWitt as a burnt-out massage therapist and Josh Pais as her repressed dentist brother.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 3 stars

‘Touchy Feely,’ with Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Josh Pais. Written and directed by Lynn Shelton. 88 minutes. Rated R for language, some drug use and brief sexuality. Harvard Exit. Shelton and actor/songwriter Tomo Nakayama are scheduled to attend evening screenings Friday and Saturday.

For an interview with Shelton, go to www.seattletimes.com/movies.

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At first glance, Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely” seems as small-scale and precise as her previous Northwest-based movies (“Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister”). But there’s something fresh and new here, something that wasn’t so dominant in her previous work.

The paradoxical center of the story is a repressed Seattle dentist, Paul (Josh Pais), whose less-than-thriving business gets a dubious shot in the arm from his daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page). She believes in the power of advertising and the possibility of miracle cures. Word-of-mouth suddenly packs their reception room with expectant patients.

Shelton plays these scenes for quiet laughs and considerable sympathy. We’ve all been there, in one New Age temptation or another, she seems to be saying. When a patient suddenly launches into a comic-relief diagnosis of her dental problems, the outburst seems completely natural.

Eventually the cast spreads out to include Paul’s burnt-out massage-therapist sister, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), and his Reiki therapist, Bronwyn (Allison Janney), who isn’t above recommending Ecstasy to jump-start the troubled romance of Abby and her sexually frustrated boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy).

Pais, who’s played small parts in everything from “A Beautiful Mind” to “The Sopranos,” finally gets a chance to demonstrate his abilities as a character actor and a minimalist comic. A montage of Paul’s relaxation sessions with Bronwyn is one of the high points.

The all-star indie cast also includes Ron Livingston (DeWitt’s off-screen husband) in a dreamy role that shifts gears drastically and almost casually. Just when you think the movie is ready to run off the rails with an ill-advised romantic fling, one character pronounces this development as “a terrible idea” and that’s the end of it.

Unless there’s a sequel, of course. Which might not be so disastrous. It’s easy to imagine this group as the basis of a miniseries that could freely explore the characters’ various awakenings. Benjamin Kasulke’s warm, cozy cinematography suggests how it could be done.

The narrative structure and especially the use of music are reminiscent of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” which came to a similarly open-ended, big-hearted conclusion. Both movies close with a sense of healing that’s very different from a standard feel-good finale.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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