by Mitch Salem, published on February 1, 2013|
Touchy Feely offers the gifted writer/director Lynn Shelton taking herself very, very seriously for the most part. It turns out to be a less effective mode for her than those of her recent small-scale comedies Humpday and Your Sisters Sister, which had marvelously well-judged tones. (In her more mainstream work, she recently directed a hilarious New Girl episode that aired a couple of weeks ago.)
Although the dialogue in Touchy Feely is probably semi-improvised by the actors, as that in Sheltons other features have been, the film as a whole feels far more organized and deliberate. The story concerns a curious, and unexplained, series of parallel events that affect two middle-aged siblings: while New Age masseuse Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) abruptly develops a physical aversion to touching the flesh of others, her more conventional dentist brother Paul (Josh Pais) just as suddenly finds himself with a magic touch that seems to cure the temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ) causing blinding pain in the heads and jaws of some of his patients.
These changes disrupt both their lives. Abby is unable to perform her job, and she begins to become estranged from her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy); in a further complication, Pauls daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) has a crush on Jesse. Meanwhile, Paul finds himself an increasingly beloved figure, and starts to be attracted to the kind of non-medical healing hed always ridiculed, in the person of Bronwyn (Allison Janney), Abbys Reiki therapist.
Touchy Feely is a much more abstract film than Sheltons other work, and in some ways its more ambitious. The photography by Benjamin Kasulke (whos shot all of her features) is luminous, and the very close-up shots of human skin achieve a mix of beauty and almost frightening otherworldliness that expresses Abbys visceral disconnection from flesh. There are lovely, apt songs on the soundtrack, and the sound design as a whole is complex. Despite all that, Touchy has very little of the characterizational detail that made Humpday and Your Sisters Sister distinctive. Although theres a suggestion that Abbys problems are a reaction to her decision to move in with Jesse, her issues with touch seem imposed on her, rather than something arising from her character, and thats even more true of Pauls healing touch. Presumably Shelton means to present themes of interconnectivity and the meaning of different forms of contact, but none of it comes together, and the movie trails off into a happy but vague ending.
All the actors in Touchy Feely are excellent, but theyre restrained in a way the stars of Sheltons other films havent been, and they have limited impact. DeWitt, in particular, is less complicated and interesting than she was able to be in Your Sisters Sister. Pais fares better because he has a more comic part, and Page does well in the limited role of his frustrated daughter, as does Janney as the therapist.
Touchy Feely comes across as an exceptionally heartfelt piece of work, yet it lives up all too well to its title, lacking the sharp insight of Sheltons other films, and groping for a hazy spiritual warmth that it never quite achieves. Its so smoothed out that it has no edges at all.