Lynn Shelton’s new film, Touchy Feely, explores the bond of a brother and sister and their relationship with touch. Abby (Rosemary DeWitt) is a free spirited massage therapist, beloved by her clients for her healing touch. Her practice is thriving, her boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy), has asked her to move in with him, and all seems perfect in her world. Paul (Josh Pais), Abby’s brother, is a type A, emotionally stunted dentist, with a teenaged daughter (Ellen Page) and a failing practice.
All of a sudden, things begin to change for Paul and Abby. Abby develops an aversion to touch. She cannot stand to be touched by Jesse, she recoils when forced to touch her clients, and even hesitates to touch herself. Meanwhile, Paul inadvertently cures a patient’s TMJ during a routine cleaning and suddenly everyone is coming to him to be healed. Due to these developments, Abby and Paul’s lives begin to switch. Abby becomes reclusive and defensive while Paul becomes more open to new ideas and the teachings of Eastern medicine. Their lives change dramatically as do their relationships with others.
On paper, Touchy Feelyseems like the perfect indie film. Award-winning cast, critically acclaimed writer/director, and slightly quirky story and characters. Unfortunately, it falls flat. The story just never truly comes together in a satisfying way. The audience is constantly questioning what is going on and their patience is never rewarded. Walking out of the theater, we feel as though there are far more questions than answers. Normally, a movie that makes you think is not a bad thing, but this one just makes you ask yourself, “What the hell just happened?”
There is also a major problem with the two main characters. Abby feels like a very full of herself, new-agey person who is constantly pushing her philosophies and agendas on everyone she meets. Paul is a rigid, annoying character unable or unwilling to listen to what those around him really want. In theory, the switching places aspect of the film should make both of these characters more likeable, yet it never does. At the end, we are still annoyed by Abby’s smugness and Paul’s withdrawn indifference.
What keeps Touchy Feely from becoming an unwatchable film are the secondary characters and their storylines. Ellen Page plays Jenny, a young woman on the brink of starting her life but not wanting to disappoint those around her. Slowly developing an inappropriate crush on Jesse, she and McNairy expertly navigate the characters through the awkwardness of emotion. Allison Janney also appears as a friend of Abby’s who is a Reiki master. She gives Abby advice and attempts to draw Paul out of his sheltered world while trying, quietly, to put herself back together.
While Touchy Feely has been hailed as a darling of the Sundance Film Festival, one wonders if it is only because of its pedigree. This is one of those films that people seem to like because they feel they should like it. Sadly, it fails to live up to the hype and leaves us feeling unfulfilled.