Capsule Reviews: 'Touchy Feely', 'No Place on Earth'

A few awards season catch-up reviews, starting with the hidden gem of the screener pile, Touchy Feely.

Touchy Feely
(USA, 90 min.)
Written and directed Lynn Shelton
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page.
Rosemarie DeWitt in Touchy Feely, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 
Offbeat yet grounded might be how to describe this new film from American indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton. Shelton reunites with her Your Sister’s Sister collaborator Rosemarie DeWitt for this fine ensemble piece about finding comfort in one’s own skin. DeWitt stars as Abby, an earthy masseuse undergoing a bit of a midlife crisis. Her brother (Josh Pais) and his daughter (Ellen Page) are also feeling their way through a transitional period of their life.

DeWitt gives an outstanding performance as Abby, embracing the awkward messiness of Abby’s touchy feely midlife crisis. DeWitt takes the intimacy of Shelton’s mature film even further by controlling each of the director’s frank and personal close-ups with a down-to-earth naturalism that is uplifting and refreshing. She’s surrounded by a worthy ensemble, especially Allison Janney as her bohemian healer and Scoot McNairy as her endearingly fallible boyfriend.

This buoyant ensemble film is a natural and authentic slice-of-life observation about the perils—and joys—of human contact. The cinematography by Benjamin Kasulke celebrates the tactility of human skin as Abby runs her hands along the backs of her clients. Touchy Feely embraces the stories told by our bodies as we age and encounter others: wrinkles and crease marks on skin have a life of their own. Abby’s hands tell of a life different from the one she imagines as she goes to massage a client’s youthfully smooth back and the signs of age on her fingers betray her young at heart idealism. It’s time to grow up!

Shelton usually makes improvisational films that are whimsically low-budget collaborations, but Touchy Feely trades the group hug for some sprawl and structure The scripted and premeditated Touchy Feely might seem at a remove from Shelton’s fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants mumblecore origins, but Touchy Feely still has that independent spirit that drew viewers’ attention to Shelton’s films in the first place. The scope of Touchy Feely is notably greater than the other films of Shelton’s body of work, and the director succeeds in upping her game, but retaining the candor, vitality, and spontaneity of great American independent filmmaking. Touchy Feely is an ambitious departure for Shelton and there’s plenty of love to go around.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Touchy Feely is now playing in limited release in theatres and on VOD.
It opens in Ottawa at the Mayfair Friday, Dec 20.

No Place on Earth
(USA/UK/Germany, 82 min.)
Dir. Janet Tobias; Writ. Janet Tobias, Paul Laikin
Kati Laban as Esther Stermer in No Place on Earth, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
I have a strategy when it comes to reviewing documentaries: if all one does when discussing a doc is write about the subject matter, then the film probably isn’t that great. A great story like the one told in No Place on Earth can indeed inspire a whiff of enthusiasm. One might be so impressed by the incredibility of a story that one might yammer on for 500 words how the tale is such a triumph of the human spirit. However, if one makes not a single mention regarding how the documentary form impacts on the power of said story, then all a writer can do is highlight the few paragraphs of synopsis and press 'Delete'. That's the a truth about reviewing documentary film.

There is no denying that No Place of Earth tells a phenomenal story that is bound to move and inspire audiences. The tale spawned by cave-explorer Chris Nicola’s discovery of human artifacts in a Ukrainian cave leads to a story of survival that offers another compelling narrative of the endurance of a people during the Holocaust. Nicola’s discovery led him to the story of the Stermer family, who escaped the doom of the concentration camps by hiding in caves in Ukraine for over 18 months. The film features several of the surviving family members as they describe how they beat the odds and lived in difficult conditions under the hardest of circumstances. The testimony from the family members is poignant and emotional—it is both elegiac and celebratory in its remembrance of the time in those caves.

Director Janet Tobias, however, doesn’t really do much else to draw out the power of the tale. Exhaustive screentime is devoted to dramatic reconstructions of the story that offer visual accompaniment to the audio tracks of the interview sequences. These dramatic digressions, while serviceable, don’t offer much—if anything—to unearth the deeper truths and questions underlying the raw, emotional testimony afforded by the survivors. The dramatizations are fine, well-composed bits, but they’re so extensive that the filmmakers might as well have doubled the content to create a dramatic film that does the story justice. No Place on Earth, however, would be just as equally compelling if told as a book (the film is adapted from a memoir by subject Esther Stermer’s 1960 memoir We Fight to Survive) or as a radio documentary, or as a roundtable discussion. No Place on Earth tells a great story, but the film itself is just okay.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

No Place on Earth is available on home video.