Lynn Shelton’s new film Touchy Feely is movie about touch, intimate touch, healing touch and losing your touch. It stars Rosemarie DeWitt, reliably radiant and neurotic, as Abby, a Reiki massage therapist in Seattle.
Abby has a boyfriend, Jesse (Scott McNairy) a bicycle repairman who always seems to be in his riding gear. She also has a brother, Paul (Josh Pais), a straitlaced dentist, who lives with his adult daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), who works as his assistant.
One night over dinner at Paul’s house, Abby more or less accidentally agrees to move in with Jesse. Jenny, a yearning soul who wants independence but believes her father can’t manage without her, also has a poorly disguised crush on Jesse but is pleased with the new arrangements. Paul, who seems to remember every sour breath he’s been forced to inhale, looks characteristically uneasy.
The actors are all first-rate and the performances are fascinating, though Shelton, who shuns exposition, makes you work to figure out the interrelationships. Initially, the film appears to be a comedy but it progresses at such a measured pace it might be called a sit-calm. The characters are self-conscious, obsessed with self-actualization and the minutiae of diets and malfunctioning toilets.
Touchy Feely seems poised to explore the same issues of embarrassing intimacy Shelton mined in her two last films, Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. But here there’s a new fantastical element, the kind of magical device that might pop up in a minor Woody Allen film.
After agreeing to move in with Jesse, and after massaging her hippie teacher, Bronwyn (Allison Janney), Abby suddenly develops a disgust with skin. She has lost her massaging mojo and the idea of intimacy with her boyfriend repels her. Around the same time, her tightly wound brother, Paul discovers he has a magical healing touch, especially for patients suffering from the chronic jaw pain. To his amazement, his previously barren waiting room is filled with patients.
“Word of mouth,” explains his receptionist.
Paul is beginning to believe in his magic, waving his hands vaguely around the necks and shoulders of his patients. Following Abby’s long-standing advice, he decides to go for a Reiki session with Bronwyn. Though the encounter is borderline slapstick in its awkwardness, something has been awakened in him. At this point, a conventional comedy would have witnessed the saturnine dentist’s rise to talk-show phenomenon, self-deluded guru or dictator. But Shelton isn’t going that way.
Instead, Shelton decides to recork the genie: Paul begins to lose his magic. And Abby, after watching the apparent meltdown of her career and love life, decides to air an old emotional wound. The plot’s turning point is precipitated by a couple of tablets of Ecstasy, which Abby gets from her therapist, leading both her and her brother on separate journeys through the streets of Seattle.
But the character’s epiphanies aren’t really communicated with the audience. The most interesting subplot, about Jenny and her conflicted feelings about her independence, feels half-resolved at best. The final stage in the film’s overall transition from irony to sincerity culminates in a heart-on-sleeve onstage performance of the song Horses by Seattle singer Tomo Nakayama (also one of Paul’s relieved patients). While it goes too far to say the script’s late embrace of sincerity feels insincere, it’s fuzzy and precious, chafing where it means to soothe.