Cracks emerge, wrinkles deepen, and imperfections long simmering under the surface manifest themselves in Lynn Shelton’s sense obsessed follow up to her similarly intimate last feature Your Sister’s Sister.
A loose psychological character study, Touchy Feely looks at the lives of two unfulfilled siblings, a masseuse who becomes suddenly averse to touch (Rosemary DeWitt) and a dentist who, equally suddenly, finds his touch to be healing (Josh Pais.) With these sensory transformations as the catalyst, Shelton explores a disaffected family unit, (Ellen Page stars too as Pais’ son, and Scott McNairy as DeWitt’s boyfriend,) struggling to cope with the latent lack of fulfilment in all of their/our lives.
As suggested by the title, Touchy Feely relates bodily concerns to psychological hangups, a metaphor made obvious part way through via some extreme skin closeups that take the current sensibility towards velvety low depth of field photography to an extreme. In the credits, a ‘macro consultant’ can be seen listed, stressing the importance Shelton placed on these shots of the wrinkled imperfections that mark the falling off point of her characters, from tentative stability to full on neurosis. DeWitt’s inability to touch human skin any longer understandably upsets McNairy, whose unrest is mirrored by Page, who feels suffocated by Pais, who in turn is becoming increasingly emotionally inert. As is clear then, Shelton builds a psychological portrait of a malaise-ridden family who finally begins to understand the damage suppressing such discontent can have.
All of this discontent builds towards an inevitable collapse, Pais’s character turning inexplicably to Zen teachings (and a Zen teacher) for solace, Ellen Page running off crying into to Scoot McNairy’s uncomfortable arms, and DeWitt wandering around touching trees whilst off her face on MDMA. A neat resolution wouldn’t be natural for a director who creates impressively real, flawed characters, as breakdowns like these don’t tie up into a pretty bow, but the finale we do get feels just as unsatisfying as a gift-wrapped one would have. Subplots run nowhere, characters make illogical decisions and the film wanders somewhat aimlessly to denouement. It is possible to make a film that mirrors life’s chaos without making it feel purposeless, but this isn’t the film to demonstrate that.
Despite broadening her approach marginally, Touchy Feely still occupies much the same territory as Shelton’s first few films. It is another small scale, largely improvised chamber piece with a small group of characters all facing and not really overcoming their own trivial white people problems. As a representative of the now (thankfully) fading mumblecore movement, she is up there competing with Joe Swanberg for the dubious honour of the genre’s best, but unfortunately Touchy Feely feels like a regression.
The best thing in Touchy Feely is Josh Pais, a character actor who has done a lot of his work in television, but yet to really break out on film. In this he is marvellous, playing a quiet and nervous character with preciseness and nuance, and making what could have been a background role the most memorable part of the film. All of the cast really are quite good, though McNairy, despite coming off strong turns in recent Killing Them Softly and Argo struggles to make anything out of a character that in his defense, is the most underwritten in the film.
In Touchy Feely, Shelton exposes perhaps that she is a great observer, but a less than stellar storyteller. Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday worked so well because of their limitations, the small space in which the characters could operate, the minimalist plotting all seemed unimportant when the naturalistic dialogues felt so spot on. In Touchy Feely there are patches of inspiration. A club scene that subverts the workings of the traditional club scene by running the audio from a parallel sequence involving Ellen Page and Scoot McNairy at a acoustic gig works fantastically, and there are other effective moments, a intoxicated Dewitt floating airily around a home from her past, talking nostalgically to the boyfriend she shared memories in it with is equally effecting, but they are not frequent enough.
To her credit Lynn Shelton did try to push herself with this film, though she was not entirely successful in her reach. The result is a film that is interesting, but not satisfying. Tonally it is all over the place, with the slightly kooky plot elements and zen-curious characters suggesting it to be a somewhat mocking poke at self-help culture, yet despite this it is oddly lacking a sense of humour. The result is a film with a light narrative and some almost farcical plot elements, played entirely straight. Sporadic moments of magic, of real emotional honesty and believability fail to make up for an overall product that is lacking in credibility and narrative strength.