Touchy Feely, written and directed by Lynn Shelton, premiered last January at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The film, telling the story of a successful massage therapist who suddenly develops a phobia of human contact, received mixed reviews upon initial viewing and has continued to do so since in most of its limited releases. Finally making its way to the shores of Britain, the deal sealer for me was the prospect of the film’s top notch indie cast. Boasting names like Ellen Page and Allison Janney and the fact that my cinematic preferences lean heavily towards the sensibilities of the Sundance Film Festival, there was a genuine air of excitement and hope that Touchy Feely would be a bigger hit for me than it has been for others.
Unfortunately, my thoughts on the film as a whole seem to echo the majority of its more negative critiques. Rosemarie DeWitt takes centre stage as Abby, a confident and carefree massage therapist whose life takes an unexpected turn when she develops a sudden phobia of human bodily contact. Bizarrely and conveniently simultaneously, Abby’s older brother Paul (Josh Pais), a dentist living a very closed off and insular life, acquires what can only be described as healing hands, the power to cure his patients of any pain with very little medical procedure. The narrative, and I mean narrative in the very loosest of senses, then meanders through a few weeks in the lives of Abby, Paul and key supporting characters Jesse (Scoot McNairy) Abby’s boyfriend, and Jenny (Ellen Page) Paul’s daughter. What is most disappointing about the picture is that such an interesting premise is realised in such a dull and unsatisfying way. The scenario of a massage therapist becoming averse to touch is one that create many chances for quirky story telling, but Lynn Shelton often refuses to play out physical representations of Abby’s problem in favour of addressing the more metaphorical meaning between her and Jesse and the state of their romantic relationship. Just as annoyingly, the opposite can be said for Paul and his new found talent for miracle healing, with the audience being treated to a number of pain relieving scenes without ever really being given more insight in to the metaphorical reasoning behind it. Adding further detriment to the rather unbalanced narrative is the simple fact that Abby, the film’s main character, is also its most unsympathetic and uninteresting. For a picture that markets itself as a comedy, there are surprisingly few humorous moments, the filmmakers instead choosing to engage in an awkward, quirkily uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the plot that never really pays off and becomes anything else. I am certainly not against the idea of an open ending, but in this case there are so many unanswered questions as the plot draws to a close that one is left frustrated and wondering why they committed to watching in the first place.
It is only fair to point out that the faults of Touchy Feely lay in the writing and direction rather than the performances of the cast. Rosemarie DeWitt as Abby is watchable and the only engagement the audience feel with the unsympathetic character is thanks to her talent as an actress. The same can be said for Scoot McNairy as boyfriend Jesse who really isn’t given enough character depth to be anything other than a foil for some of the more important characters in the narrative. More praise for Josh Pais as introvert Paul, though, who creates a nuanced and interesting character whom the audience certainly want to know more about even if they do not necessarily find him likeable. As always, Allison Janney brings life to any film in which she takes part, bringing some real comic relief and enjoyable dialogue as Bronwyn, a Reiki master and friend of Abby’s. The one real shining light in the picture, though, is Ellen Page as Paul’s reserved and somewhat nervous daughter Jenny. Her character arc presents nothing original to the audience, a girl with college aspirations and lingering guilt over the possibility of leaving her dependent father, but Page plays the part with great vulnerability and believability, wrestling the attention in any group scene between the cast of characters. In fact, Jenny’s storyline of professional and personal discontent mixed with dreams of something more and a little romantic complication is arguably the most interesting sub plot in the entire narrative, causing the film to drag whenever she is not on screen.
Overall, Touchy Feely is a film whose initial premise is much more interesting and original than the actual narrative turns out to be. The potential quirk of the set up is not fully exploited and instead the picture turns in to a rather mundane romantic drama with a few shining moments of humour and interest interspersed along the way.The film suffers from not really allowing any of its characters to breath and provide the audience with some engaging depth or backstory, which at ninety minutes in length is more than time enough to do so. Worth a watch, perhaps, for Ellen Page’s enjoyable performance, but certainly not top of any list. My advice? Wait for Netflix.