Film Review: Touchy Feely

Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s latest effort focuses on issues of personal healing that drive members of a family to crisis points.

In contrast to previous films like Your Sister’s Sister (an unexpected, clandestine love affair erupts amidst a close trio) and Humpday (a straight guy is determined to have a gay one-night stand with a close buddy), Lynn Shelton’s less charming, less droll Touchy Feely offers a proportionately less satisfying journey as she maps bumpy roads to wellness. The contrived concept suffers from both a cushiony launching pad and a soft landing. Still, her many fans will return and may enjoy the ride.

Shelton continues to wear many hats as she again delivers accomplished indie actors playing likeable characters who people her native Seattle. But while Shelton keeps tight grips on her films as writer, director and editor, her modus operandi is, ironically, to play it loose with her actors by suggesting scenes to them and letting them improvise (though there’s significantly less improv this time around, according to the director). The strategy has worked wonderfully in Shelton’s past films, but less so in Touchy Feely, whose actors embrace themes of healing, self-discovery and getting unstuck on paths alternately littered or blessed with new age-y and recreational drug solutions.

In this original spin on the family drama, free-spirited massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is the polar opposite of her uptight dentist brother Paul (Josh Pais). He slavishly but responsibly sticks to his mundane routine, even using his emotionally challenged, professionally stunted daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) as his dental assistant to keep the struggling business going. Only musician friend Henry (Tomo Nakayama) seems alive in Jenny’s social circle.

Stuff happens when Abby, who works with co-masseuse Bronwyn (Allison Janney), inexplicably and violently becomes sickened by the body contact required of her profession. The repulsion extends to her fading relationship with younger boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy), another underachiever who toils in a bike shop.

Just as Abby develops her aversion to physical intimacy, Paul suddenly acquires a reputation as a healer who can cure patients with his touch. The revelation temporarily invigorates him both professionally and personally. Then his daughter Jenny develops a huge crush on her aunt’s boyfriend Jesse, whose current relationship is at a crossroads.
Desperation mounts as pressure builds on all these characters (sometimes change comes by way of pill-popping or just letting go). Paul ends up on Bronwyn’s massage table, Abby reconnects with first heartbreak Adrian (Ron Livingston), and Paul may even let Jenny leave home to go to college.

With this effort, Shelton again creates nice Seattle denizens, but her accomplished actors do not always sparkle in the roles they’ve been handed here. Maybe this has to do with the filmmaker’s stretch for quirk to give the material more interest or conflict. Touchy Feely is in a familiar Shelton comfort zone peopled by mellow, relatable types that many viewers will appreciate. But, ultimately, this pre-fab world does not engage.