By Lanford Beard
Updated December 12, 2012 at 11:27 PM EST
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Touchy Feely Ellen Page Scoot Mcnairy
Credit: Benjamin Kasulke

Lynn Shelton’s latest film has a touchy subject. Literally. The writer-director of Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister is re-teaming with Rosemarie DeWitt — who just scored a Spirit nom for Sister — on Touchy Feely, a drama about a massage therapist who develops an aversion to bodily contact. Shelton spoke exclusively with EW about the project, which she says goes into more dramatic territory that her previous projects. “It doesn’t have this rollicky, bantering feel that my last couple films have had,” she says. “It definitely has laughs, but it really is a drama. It’s really about attempting to live in your own skin, both literally and metaphorically.”

“The two main characters are brother and sister who are going in different trajectories,” Shelton explains of Abby (DeWitt) and Paul (Josh Pais). “I already had been talking to Rose for months about being in this movie. I sort of built the characters for her and Josh. If they hadn’t been available, I wouldn’t have shot the movie.”

In the above picture, Abby is coming to terms with her sudden affliction. “One thing that this film delves into that I’ve never really dealt with before is how your work relates to your sense of worth and your identity,” says Shelton. “Abby is somebody who’s really confident she’s good at what she does. Her identity is really tied to being a healer, somebody who really connects to other people physically. When that’s taken away from her, she’s completely undone. She doesn’t have anything to anchor her.”

This lonely, forelorn image is telling of Abby’s journey through Touchy Feely. “There’s a lot of internal struggle,” notes Shelton. “Abby ends up really isolating herself. She’s trying to figure stuff out, and she ends up navigating through it by herself.”

NEXT: Pais gets hands-on

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Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Quite the opposite of his sister, Shelton says Paul “is introverted. He hasn’t been able to connect to anybody, and he’s just kind of put his head down and decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to get through life.’ He’s very uptight.” Just as Abby reaches her personal and professional nadir, Paul is on the upswing. “People start telling him he’s a healer and start seeking him out. At first he doesn’t believe it, but then he started to really soak it in, and it ends up triggering a transformation in him.” In this moment, he reaches out to Abby’s mentor, a Reiki practitioner named Bronwyn (Allison Janney, right). “She ends up teaching him about her work. It’s a whole new world opening for him. This is kind of the peak of his journey of self-discovery.”

NEXT: Ellen Page and Scoot McNairy round out the cast

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Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Ellen Page plays a young woman who is “in every aspect of her life, stuck,” says Shelton. She encounters Abby’s boyfriend Jesse (Argo‘s Scoot McNairy), and, in the moment shown above, it becomes clear that “they’re both sad in their own different ways. They have kind of a parallel emotional experience.”

Jesse, says Shelton, “is one of my favorite characters because he’s the one who’s struggling the least. You meet him at the beginning of the film and you don’t give him a ton of credit. He seems almost shallow — he’s not a serious character. But you realize he’s really grounded and just takes life as it comes and says what he feels and is very straightforward. He’s actually the most centered and doesn’t take himself too seriously — to his benefit. He ends up being a real stand-up guy.”

Though the film is a departure from Shelton’s most recent work, she acknowledges, “It always kind of comes back to the same thing for me, which is the sense of ‘Who am I?’ [I’m drawn to questions about] your relationship to other people and how you sort of shift your sense of identity within your relationships with specific other people — but also in relationship with yourself.”

Touchy Feely will premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

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