The inability of people to make authentic connections in a world dominated by personal screens and digital devices is subject matter ripe for exploration. The fall-out from this virus of disconnectedness is at the center of Seattle director Lynn Shelton’s latest film, Touchy Feely. Her characters are unable to express themselves. They feel around the edges of commitment. They’ve lost the tools with which to touch and engage with confidence. Even Shelton herself is afflicted, content to poke around the edges of this emotional open sore, reluctant to get at the core of the psychic wound trapping her characters in an unchallenged life.
To her credit, Shelton skips the backstories which have made her characters so afraid of engagement. We come to the film fully aware of the irradiated fall-out of the Facebook era. She and her filmmaking colleagues (Joe Swanberg, Mark Duplass, Kelly Reichert), have made their mark with pictures depicting furry tribes of directionless 30-somethings, mumbling about inconsequential things, wary of responsibility and embracing an embarrassed narcissism. We understand the milieu of Touchy Feely before we fade into the first scene. But what do we get for all this pre-disposed knowledge? An excoriating dissection of the status of a modern day relationship would be welcome, although given Shelton’s reticence in her previous four films to delve deeply into this territory, we can’t be hopeful. Perhaps then, a witty, half-serious exploration of the ways in which people reluctantly come together in spite of themselves? This comes close to what, I think, Shelton is after in this film. Unfortunately, nearly every choice she makes as a writer and director undersells the goods.
Rosemary DeWitt plays Abby, a massage therapist who one day suddenly becomes repulsed by bare skin. Unable to work, she temporarily closes her business, takes Ecstasy and hooks up with an old boyfriend (Ron Livingston). Her current squeeze, played by Scoot McNairy, is a bicycle mechanic she is only half-heartedly interested in. Her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is a dentist afflicted with a timidity so crippling he is losing patients. His daughter — Ellen Page, in the film’s only consistent, considered performance — is his hygienist. All the actors seem frustrated and hemmed in by their fey, unrealistic characters. They drift through the movie’s flimsy story without motivation or agency, searching for a vague sense of arc within the plot. Livingston and McNairy are especially exasperating, offering mealy-mouthed acquiescence to the limited demands of the material.
Visually, the movie has the crisp, overlit sheen of a mediocre TV drama. There is no depth to the images, no shadows, no intelligence dictating where the camera is placed or how it should move. The film is aesthetically static. The first 20 minutes, in fact, are the most excruciating I’ve experienced in any movie this year. The four main characters are introduced around a dinner table, their stagnant conversation instantly enervating. After awhile, the pace picks up, the camera begins a tentative search for meaningful images, small things happen that one imagines will develop into a coherent thematic statement. Paul has a healing touch with patients suffering from the chronic jaw condition, TMJ, and for a brief time his waiting room is full and his confidence swells. But this buoyant interlude quickly peters out. Similarly, the significance of Abby’s new aversion to touch evades scrutiny. We have to assume that just the idea of this quirk was enough to fulfill the film’s mission.
Touchy Feely is Shelton’s most serious film to date in terms of intent, but it’s a disaster in terms of tone and mood. If she is going to continue within this limited context of the hipster-at-a-crossroads, confused by their own attenuated emotions, she needs to at least develop a more muscular, metaphorical and expansive visual vocabulary to express the tortured imagination of characters who can’t bear to stake out their own ground.
This story first appeared in Rustin Thompson's blog The Restless Critic.