The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Touchy Feely

Reviewed by Anna Reynolds Cooper.

Director Lynn Shelton
Length 88 mins
Certificate 15
Rating *****-----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 2

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How do you make a film about the sense of touch?

This seems the utterly simple premise behind Touchy Feely, a quiet, quotidian drama set in a glistening, lonely Seattle. Massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) wakes up one day to find that she is repulsed by human skin, causing her to spiral into a crisis. Meanwhile her brother Paul (Josh Pais), a bumbling dentist, suddenly finds himself with a healing touch that brings hordes to his previously foundering practice. Paul’s daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), connects to people by cooking for them; the camera lingers on her hands as they work lovingly in the kitchen. Each character in this small, intimate family undergoes a kind of crisis of touch.

The film has its moments, aided by director Lynn Shelton’s gorgeous editing. Shelton’s signature style, in which striking shots of Washington landscapes slowly unfold in a series of subtly asynchronous jump cuts, is in perfect form here. I can think of few directors who so successfully evoke the everydayness of a city, and Shelton’s staunch regionalism - she was born in Seattle and all her feature films are quite emphatically set there - is something I wish we would see more of in American cinema.

Unfortunately, the film is not Shelton’s best work. Her first widely released feature, Humpday (2009), had a delightful warmth, depicting a bromance between two aging college friends as their relationship is thrown into tailspin by a sexual dare. Her second, Your Sister’s Sister (2011), was simply stunning in its depiction of the development of an alternative family through an unexpected turn of events in a Puget Sound vacation house.

Touchy Feely has many of the same strengths as these two wonderful films - they each contain the same quietly intense emotional tenor amidst daily Seattle life - yet it somehow does not hang together as well here. For one thing, each storyline feels underdeveloped; we want to see more of the developing romance between Jenny and Henry (played by the captivating newcomer Tomo Nakayama), of Abby’s crisis in her relationship with Jesse (Scoot McNairy), of Jenny’s desire to go to cooking school. Although brevity is a virtue, the film sometimes veers into the outright confusing in its desire to be economical. Without more solid storytelling, Shelton’s characteristically slow unfolding of the plot can veer into the ponderous.

Worse is the performance of Josh Pais as Paul, who stole almost every scene he was in - but in the worst possible sense. In the film’s opening scenes, I kept puzzling over whether Paul was supposed to have an intellectual disability: he is so slow of speech, so stiff of body, so awkward and dull that the young, lost Jenny seems to be virtually his caretaker (It is never explained what happened to her mother). Later on, his acting style wanders into a soft, campy gayness that also doesn’t really make sense.

The film does end satisfyingly, and its shimmering slowness stays with you for hours after you leave the cinema. However, the unifying concept - the sense of touch - does not really serve to unify the film and feels a little heavy-handed, like it has been imposed on these characters from without.

If I was disappointed with Touchy Feely, however, it is largely because Shelton’s previous films set the bar so high - and so I will end with a plug: you should queue them up on Netflix, and keep an eye out for her new film Laggies, to be released this fall.

This review was published on May 25, 2014.