Movie Review: "Touchy Feely"
Rating: R (language, some drug use, and brief sexuality)
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 19, 2013
Directed by: Lynn Shelton
Stars: 2.5 out of 5
Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a Seattle massage therapist who specializes in tantric massages, which means that human contact is a regular part of her daily life. Despite her seeming comfort touching other people's skin, Abby is anything but comfortable in her own. She gets regular massages from fellow masseuse Bronwyn (Allison Janney) in order to help her relax and cope with her stress and anxiety. These sessions help, but they don't seem to be able to stop the tidal wave of neurosis that is about to come Abby's way.
Abby's well-meaning boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy) leads a largely bohemian lifestyle and repairs bikes for a living. He seems to really love Abby despite her foibles, so he asks her to move in with him. Abby agrees but soon finds that her anxiety over the impending move has finally boiled over. She suddenly becomes repulsed by the thought of human contact of any kind, which makes it impossible for her to perform her job as a massage therapist. She can't work, she can't seem to express what is going on, and now her personal life may be hanging by a thread.
Her brother Paul (Josh Pais) inexplicably gets her healing touch, which couldn't come at a better time. He is also an anxious person and finds that he has trouble communicating with the few patients he has left at his failing dental practice. Now that he has the healing touch, it revives his business even as his poor sister's business is failing. This throws a wrench in the plans of his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), who works at the reception desk of her dad's practice. She had secretly hoped to strike out on her own once the business went under, but the sudden resurgence in clients forces her to admit to her dad that this isn't the life she wants. This all leads to a final act in which all the hilariously dysfunctional family members must get over their issues and get their lives back on track by admitting their feelings and finally communicating with each other.
Director Lynn Shelton is known for an improvisational style of filmmaking that largely relies on her actors to produce the script. Her previous films, such as "Humpday," have a very organic feel to them, probably because the actors were encouraged to make up their own lines if it felt right. With "Touchy Feely," the director tried the more traditional filmmaking route, writing out a full script that the actors followed. Shelton set the film in her native Seattle, almost as if she were holding onto some familiarity as she went into the previously uncharted waters of a fully scripted film. The result is an entertaining though occasionally uneven film that uses a sustained mood instead of improvisation to help it feel more organic. Though the film's plot requires a leap of faith, it is executed well enough to more than keep the audience engaged until the final hasty resolution of the characters' myriad problems.
DeWitt and Shelton had previously worked together in the 2011 indie gem "Your Sister's Sister," so it is no surprise that the director cast the actress again. DeWitt turns in a fine performance that is completely believable despite the unusual premise. Few movies are made about people with the kind of aversion to human touch that Abby ends up having, yet DeWitt manages to do an excellent job with the character. Since she is in the vast majority of the film's scenes, she must carry the occasionally creaky plot on her slim shoulders, and she does the job admirably. Arguably the best thing that Shelton did for the film, which she also wrote by herself, was casting DeWitt in the lead.
Shelton has a knack for writing and directing films that feature strong female leads. Though Abby is actually very neurotic, the fact that she doesn't crumble from her sudden aversion makes her strong. Sure, she could have been written as less neurotic or troubled, but considering the dearth of female lead roles in Hollywood these days, a character like Abby is practically a hero. This is especially true when compared to some of the basket cases that surround her in her occasionally insular world. Perhaps Shelton was trying to make Abby look better by comparison, or perhaps she was making a broader social statement about how disconnected humans are today. Either way, DeWitt makes the entertaining though occasionally kooky premise work with her charm and acting skills.