SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | January 28, 2013
Director: Lynn Shelton
Writer: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Josh Pais, Allison Janney, Scoot McNairy, Tomo Nakayama, Ron Livingston, Ruth McRee, Shannon Kipp, Hans Altwies, Alycia Delmore, Sean Donavan
Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) needs to move out of her apartment, so it makes perfect sense that she should move in with her boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy). That is just what women do, right? They give up their independence and identity and move in with their boyfriend after dating for a while. Well, as Abby’s move-in date draws closer, she begins to develop a strange aversion to touch. This really cramps her intimacy with Jesse — with whom she enjoyed an active sex life up until this point — but it also forces her to temporarily shut down her massage therapy practice. Abby’s Reiki specialist (Allison Janney) tries to realign her body and spirit, but nothing seems to work. Abby is way too out of whack.
All the while, Abby’s brother Paul (Josh Pais) goes from a floundering dentistry business to a reinvigorated one when one of his patients (Tomo Nakayama) is miraculously cured of TMJ after a routine cleaning. This newly discovered fame remedies Paul’s depression and lack of self-confidence, but there seems to be no cure for his timidity and awkwardness in social situations. So while Abby’s loss of her healing touch sends her into a nightmarish tailspin, Paul’s business is saved by his newly discovered power of touch.
Paul’s daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) works as his dental assistant, though she would much rather be pursuing more intellectual efforts in school. The problem is that Paul assumes that Jenny is happy as his dental assistant, and Jenny feels much too guilty about abandoning the family business. Not only is Jenny stuck in this lame job, but she is hopelessly in love with someone who will probably never reciprocate her feelings.
Writer-director Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely works quite well as a film about two women who feel hopelessly trapped in their relationships with men. Abby clearly loves Jesse and Jenny obviously cares deeply about her father, and their respective desires for independence does not mean otherwise. If anything, Abby and Jenny are just hoping to define themselves before committing to sharing their lives with anyone else.
Like Your Sister’s Sister, I think Touchy Feely may suffer a bit from a lack of focus; but, I write that as a huge fan of Shelton’s more claustrophobic character studies, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday. I think Touchy Feely could have been a more coherent film if it had followed a single narrative thread, for example if it focused primarily on Abby with everyone else functioning as peripheral characters. By cramming Jenny and Paul’s stories so prominently into the narrative, the plot becomes a bit too muddled for my tastes. That said, Touchy Feely features what is probably the most impressive dramatic performance of Ellen Page’s resume to date, so it is certainly not all bad. On the other hand, Josh Pais is reduced to being the bumbling Jerry Lewis-esque, comedic relief of the film — and this just seems like an all-too-purposeful attempt at injecting comedy into the film.
Of course, these criticisms do not lessen my admiration and appreciation for Shelton; she is still one of my favorite young directors. No matter how much I criticize Touchy Feely, I still think it is far superior to most other family relationship dramas that have been released recently. Shelton’s films are incredibly thoughtful and intelligent, but most importantly I enjoy viewing these narratives via a female writer-director’s perspective. Touchy Feely is somewhat of a departure from Shelton’s more conversation-based talkies; going along with the new agey storylines, Shelton gives the narrative some room to breathe in the editing room, and she gives cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke the freedom to go nuts with the purely visual elements of the narrative.
I remember an ex-girlfriend and I deconstructing the practice of kissing to the point that it seemed [luckily only temporarily] revolting to both of us — I point that out only because Kasulke’s close-up shots of skin began to give me the same discomforting feeling about human touch. When you think about — or focus on — human contact on too granular of a level, it could easily become revolting. There is nothing sensual about extreme close-ups of the epidermis, in fact it looks like the other-worldly terrain of a strange planet; but thinking about human touch on a more macro level, it can be quite magical. Touchy Feely teaches us — by way of integrating Reiki lessons into the screenplay — about human energy and the transference of that energy from one person to another. Essentially, Shelton is conveying to us that touch is a very important part of human existence, it just might not be a good idea to obsess about it on a microcosmic level.