Movie Review: Touchy Feely (2013, Dir. Lynn Shelton)

Touchy Feely 2013

Touchy Feely is the third feature by Lynn Shelton, and stars Ellen Page, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Josh Pais.  Pais plays Paul, a dentist running a dying practice.  His sister, Abby (DeWitt) is a free-spirited massage therapist.  Paul hopes his daughter, Jenny (Page), will take over the practice one day, oblivious of alternative paths she may want to explore. Unexplained events occur threatening to unravel their lives.  It would have been nice if the plot thickened from there, but whatever force was at play withered away leaving a cast of talent wasted.

This could have been a fantastic movie with a strong story-line, but it wasn’t. It was a character study into a family, with gifted actors running around on screen unsure of what to do.

 

This is the problem I have with character studies.  They promise to give us a deeper understanding about people, but in fact tell us less than if those people were thrust into a well-thought out story in which their objectives put them in conflict with each other, creating action that moves the plot along, until all the consequences of all the choices made intelligently culminate into a climax full of catharsis and revelations of truth at the end.  Just because this has worked for thousands of years doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to use.  This is not to be confused with Hollywood artifice-exhausted conventions with soon-to-be dated special effects and/or topical humor. Rather, it forms the core of theatrical storytelling: people struggling to get what they want.

To simply meditate on what characters are like when they eat, when they’re sad, when they take a shit, might seem like good fodder during the rehearsal process. To package it up and present it as a fully formed movie is a cop out.

At first, Touchy Feely gives the impression that it will build to something promising as the family is thrown into flux.  Paul appears to have obtained healing powers, and his languishing practice starts to turn around.  Meanwhile, Abby suddenly develops a phobia of skin, which sucks for her, as her métier involves quite a lot of intimacy with that particular organ. This occurs at the same time as she teeters on the next step of her relationship with Jesse (Scott McNairy) whom she has always considered a rebound guy. At the end, she gets through it all by passively willing her troubles and insecurities away.  Although she does spend some extra time getting her energy evaluated by her own massage therapist, Bronwyn, played by Allison Janney, there is no moment in which she is forced to deal with her problems head on.

Another problem is that the family dynamics also miss the mark. There is no familial chemistry between Page, Pais, and Dewitt.  Pais and Dewitt play siblings, but they seem more like a divorced couple. Whatever enigmatic scourge exists between them is not explored, thereby adding another layer of confusion rather than depth.

Jenny (Page), unnecessarily humorless, treats her father with kid gloves as if he is a distant relative she has just met but is forced to care for because he has just gotten out of the hospital for a suicide attempt. However, he isn’t a distant relative, and he hasn’t just been released from the hospital. Sure, he is a bit aloof, socially awkward, and glum, but not on the verge of a melt-down or anything that requires the tension Page brings with every single encounter she has with him. Unfortunately, when opportunity comes for Paul to improve his relationship with Jenny upon her abrupt and tearful flight from the dental office, he takes drugs and goes dancing at a bar instead. There are no ramifications for this; his relationship miraculously becomes peachy with her again. Furthermore, the only chemistry existing in the film, that being between Paul and Bronwyn (Janney), is brushed off with a montage of her teaching him energy sensing. Before long, the whole thing is abandoned until a kiss at the very end.

Yeah, present an emotionally stifled person, and have them magically appear in a meaningful relationship.  I, for one, would actually like to see how that could possibly develop. Oh well.

This mystifying resolution of crisis runs rampant in Touchy Feely.  Everything goes back to the way it was, but everyone is happier.  Thanks for nothing.

What is most disappointing is that this film could have been great.  Touchy Feely could have been a modern Glass Menagerie wherein the fragility of feeling intense emotion can either liberate or destroy a person.  Instead, it teases us with its potential, and ends as if we have just taken a meaningful journey with these characters through dark struggles and made it to the other side; except that we haven’t at all. The only meaningful part is the phenomenal and haunting performance of Tomo Nakayama as Henry, singing while playing the guitar.  I think the film is aware that this scene is the only one worth watching, because Jenny keep mentioning Henry’s upcoming performance, and how momentous it will be.

Touchy Feely isn’t an experimental film, so it can’t use that excuse to break all conventions. It presents itself as a drama with quirky humorous interludes. Ultimately, it seems to be a movie made from the first draft of the script. Lucky for Shelton, the indie scene is in full support of her attempts at nailing this type of movie.  Eventually, I guarantee that Shelton will put out a film that doesn’t fall short of its goal.  It will be extraordinary, because it will contain meaningful conflict, rising action, and a realistic conclusion. That is a film I look forward to watching.

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