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Sundance Review: Lynn Shelton's 'Touchy Feely' Flirts With Greatness, But Proves Too Listless & Frustrating

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by Rodrigo Perez
January 20, 2013 9:10 PM
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There's a strange and opaque energy coursing through the veins of Lynn Shelton's languid fifth feature-length effort, "Touchy Feely." It's a little mysterious, to the film’s moody credit, and it’s a little unavailable and removed, to its detriment. Lead actress Rosemarie DeWitt admitted, "I didn't really understand the character when I read the script," in the post Sundance Q&A. "But then I told her I didn't understand her either," Shelton explained. And not only does this sentiment ring true, it’s this mild inscrutableness that muddies this often compelling, occasionally sublime, but ultimately uneven family drama about energy, connections (missed or otherwise) and healing.

Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” lead DeWitt stars as the carefree Abby, a well-adjusted sought-after masseuse who on a whim decides to move in with her bike shop-owning boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Her conservative brother Paul (Josh Pais) is her polar opposite. Tightly wound and conventional with a nervous energy, Paul's dentistry practice is in decline and no helpful suggestions from his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) on how to improve and revive the ailing business will be heard.

The assured Abby seemingly has it all figured out, Paul doesn't really care for Jesse, nor the idea of the two of them living together, and the co-dependent Jenny yearns for experience and a life outside the soul-crushing offices of her dad's dour dentistry. Upstairs from Abby's practice is Bronwyn (Allison Janney), an enlightened Reiki therapist who helps heal and care for her energy.

And just as the order and delicate balance of this world is unveiled, it abruptly and mysteriously unravels. It begins with Abby, who suddenly develops a crippling aversion to the human touch—not the ideal affliction for a massage therapist. Queasy and then revolted by the thought of skin and flesh— shot in intimate macro close-up to the point of abstraction—Abby attempts to soldier on, but then quickly shuts down her practice indefinitely until she can get a handle on her uncontrollable disgust. Meanwhile, Paul begins to develop a healing touch out of the blue. He inadvertently "cures" a patient of a jaw disorder. The miraculous word begins to spread and the practice begins to take off, much to his confusion and delight.

It appears as if some kind of transference of energy has taken place between the siblings, but why or how is unclear. Abby's abhorrence of touch also severely disrupts her passionate relationship with Jesse. Concurrently, the relationship between the routine-obsessed Paul and the emotionally stunted Jenny begins to flourish as the practice begins to prosper. Abby's crisis leads her towards introspection and Paul's newfound abilities open up a world of possibility and discovery to the formerly skeptical man.

A film about identity as much as it is about healing oneself and others, the enigmatic connectivity of its themes aren't quite the issue. Listlessly paced, "Touchy Feely" is a muted and a low-energy film. While there's a lot of admirable breathing space for moments of introverted thought and self-reflection, often arriving in close-ups of the face, these scenes never quite resonate as much as they should. And while the dramedy has laughs, not many of them land as sharply as they could. Shelton touches upon all these would-be fascinating ideas of the comfort (or discomfort) of living within one's own skin, universal connectedness, spirituality, intimacy and more, but "Touchy Feely" can't quite ever coalesce these themes in a meaningful way—though the film can often maddeningly feel just moments away from something transcendent.

"Touchy Feely" is frustrating in this sense, as there is lots to admire and love. The underrated Pais is particularly excellent, affecting and funny as the uptight dentist who experiences a mixture of excitement, dread and disorientation when he suddenly becomes visible to those around him. Ill-equipped for the spontaneity his new "celebrity" affords him, Paul wobbles towards different experiences like learning Reiki from Bronwyn, and Pais is definitely the stand-out in this great ensemble. The always-good Allison Janney delights as the grounded therapist and Ellen Page is especially beguiling at expressing the trapped interior life of Jenny.

Shelton's films have been observational and dialogue-driven in recent years and "Touchy Feely" tries to break this form by experimenting with sound, tenor, editing and cinematography. Registering a low wattage throughout, "Touchy Feely" begins to vibrantly surge in its last act, becoming dream-like, and in one musical sequence with co-star and singer/songwriter Tomo Nakayama (who supplies a few songs in the film's soundtrack) ascends to something extraordinarily moving and affecting. But just as "Touchy Feely" looks like it may finally reveal itself, perhaps say something profound about realigning ourselves with connections that are right underneath our own noses, there's a sequence when it appears like all the characters have discovered they're with the wrong partner—it shies away from this theme, and then aggravatingly ties everything up in a neat bow which seems antithetical to its ambiguous tone.

There's a great movie somewhere inside "Touchy Feely" desperately trying to swim to the surface, but its obscurity also comes with an inarticulateness that robs it of its potential. Shelton's latest is an absorbing exploration of identity, family dynamics and the mysterious psychic push-and-pull balance of the universe, but its chakras aren't completely aligned, making for a disappointing and uneven experience.  [B-]

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