Title: Touchy Feely
Director: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Josh Pais
Director Lynn Shelton and actress Rosemarie DeWitt recently collaborated on an entertaining film called Your Sister’s Sister, which featured three individuals away at a cabin together for a weekend with unexpected connections between them. For their second film together, Shelton casts DeWitt in a leading role among the ensemble, as Abby, a massage therapist who experiences a crisis whose cause she cannot identify, which leads to trouble in her relationship with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). While Abby struggles to figure out what is wrong with her, her brother Paul (Josh Pais) and niece Jenny (Ellen Page) also experience their own self-revelations in this spirited but unfulfilling dramatic comedy.
This film’s title does double duty, referring to the sense-centric practice used by both Abby and her personal guru, the eccentric Bronwyn (Allison Janney) and also to the prickly nature of Paul, who seems to possess a social disorder, and Jenny, who has trouble interacting with others because of how her father shields her from the rest of the world. It’s a fair assessment of the characters, but the problem is that the film doesn’t have any particular direction in which to go. When Paul unintentionally cures a dental patient of his TMJ, others with similar symptoms begin flocking to the dying practice, desperate for the magical cure he can provide. Paul stammers to each patient who requests the cure, telling them that he can’t promise any results, yet his success continues anyway. It’s just one of the many unexplained plot twists in this bizarre film which feels hopelessly ungrounded.
Shelton has a talent for eliciting strong performances from her actors, but this is hardly the best instance of that. DeWitt seems incredibly natural on screen in all her roles, yet this one isn’t as well-written, leaving her with only a partial character, one uncertain of herself and not overly determined to rectify her situation. Page has also fallen into the trap of taking on precocious roles similar to the one she had in her career-making Juno, but without the same flair and energy. Pais, on the other hand, invests himself fully in making Paul a sympathetic but horribly awkward personality, antisocial to a stunning point through little fault of his own. Janney, as usual, steals many of her scenes as free spirit Bronwyn, but it’s not nearly as funny as her performance in another Sundance entry this year, The Way, Way Back. Simply put, this cast can do and has done better.
It’s not clear what exactly is missing in Touchy Feely, but the film never gets to a point of truly evoking sympathy for its characters. The only one with whom it’s difficult to find any fault is Jesse, and even he is hardly a bastion of friendly, social behavior. Having no likeable characters does not doom a film, but having unsympathetic protagonists whose lives have essentially stopped moving forward doesn’t leave much hope for a quality film. This is an intriguing effort, but there’s no explicit point or silver lining for this uninvolving story.
Touchy Feely is an entry in the Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition in Park City.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer