As the title astutely suggests, Touchy Feely is a film all about connections. Be it physical, emotional or spiritual, Lynn Shelton’s latest film provides an observation of all the things that bring us together and the fears that keep us apart. Despite being billed as “a self-improved comedy”, Touchy Feely is a dramedy that is steeped in as much sadness as it is quirky humour.
The film tells the story of two very different siblings, Abby (Rosemary DeWitt) and Paul (Josh Pais), whose lives experience drastic and unexpected turns. Of the two, Abby is the one who seemingly has her life together. She enjoys her work as a massage therapist and is finally taking the plunge and moving in with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). However, when Abby is suddenly stricken with a condition that renders her unable to physical touch things, her life is turned upside down. Repulsed by the sight of skin, and unsure of what is happening to her, Abby struggles with both her relationships and her own identity.
Just as Abby’s life appears to be in shambles, Paul’s magically beings to take off, not that he necessarily wants the success at first. Although he works as a dentist, Paul would be happy if he could spend his days in his dark office looking over x-rays and polishing his dental impressions. Paul’s awkward closed off nature begins to slowly erode his relationship with his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page). Unable to truly communicate with her father, Jenny struggles with her desire to go to college and her sense of obligation to her emotionally stunted father and his floundering business. When a local coffee shop server and musician, Henry (Tomo Nakayama), claims that Paul cured his bout of TMJ; word quickly spreads and a perplexed Paul see his practice on the rise. This ultimately sends him down a path of self-discovery that will open his eyes to the powers of human connection.
Touchy Feely is a film that at time is both intriguing and frustrating. Shelton has a lot of great ideas that do not always come together on screen. Part of this is a result of the way in which Shelton’s attempts to keep the film’s narrative within conventional confines. Considering that the characters are not fully realized, some of the encounters they find themselves in feel forced. This is especially noticeable when Abby reconnects with a childhood friend (Ron Livingston). Conventional moments like this feel at odds with the times that Touchy Feely is most captivating..
This is most notable in the latter half of the film when Shelton embraces a more existential tone. The way she visually captures Abby’s sense of rebirth is arguably one of the strongest moments in the Touchy Feely. The same can be said for the montage that is bound together by Henry’s mesmerizing acoustic performance. When Henry passionately sings “I am a horse without a race, I will gallop where I please” you cannot help but wish Shelton had embraced this ideal a little more. Touchy Feely soars when Shelton frees herself from typical conventions, but those moments are few and far between. When Henry questions in his song “is it a burden or a gift to be bound?” the answer is clear. By sticking so close to predictable storytelling, Touchy Feely ends up being an interesting, but problematic film that never reaches its full potential. Though it will satisfy for a few hours, it is clear that both Shelton and her cast are far better than the conventions they inadvertently lock themselves into.