Touchy Feely (film review) by Frank Ochieng.

Writer-director Lynn Shelton’s ‘Touchy Feely’ is an atmospheric drama spouting off some New Age mystical vibes that may very well rub viewers in the right way. Essentially, ‘Touchy Feely’ is an eclectic and quaint small scale Pacific Northwest melodrama that features mildly quirky complicated characters and a fantasy-based disillusionment that makes this feature an intimate charmer. Shelton’s spirited and off-kilter fable about a dysfunctional family and the spiritual connection that weaves in and out of their checkered existences often hits home more than it misses.

Shelton’s (‘Humpday’, ‘Your Sister’s Sister’) screenplay is brisk and imaginative but one cannot help but wonder if more depth in the script could have fleshed out the characters’ eccentricities and uncertainties to the point where ‘Touchy Feely’ does not feel so rushed and compacted within its whimsical walls. The film boasts a capable cast and the gorgeous scenery and usage of inspirational music on the soundtrack definitely provides the heft of meditative forethought. Otherwise, the concept of touching through the necessities of these protagonists’ personal and professional lives coupled with their feeling of vague inadequacies does drive home the point about the emotional and philosophical stand-off in ‘Touchy Feely’.

Seattle-based massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, ‘Nobody Walks’) is blessed with the ultimate feel-good touch as her clients cannot get enough of her sensationalistic fingers. Abby’s business seems to be thriving and in her personal life she enjoys the company of a new man in her life named Jesse (Scoot McNairy), a bicycle shop owner. In fact, Jesse adores her so much that he invites her to move into his place with him. Abby is hesitant at first but she makes the commitment to live with Jesse despite her concerns.

Suddenly, Abby’s cursed with an intolerance to touching human skin. Obviously, this does not bode well for someone in her line of work. The thought of touching her clients — or even Jesse for that matter – puts her into panic attack mode. Abby even consults her holistic healer Brownlyn (Allison Janney) about her aversion to touching that is nauseating to her. Brownlyn is quite mystified about Abby’s uptightness and suggests that maybe she try a couple of Ecstasy pills to calm her nerves. Abby’s crippling condition looks to threaten her relationship with Jesse who tries to be patient about her psychological dilemma.

Abby’s touching paralysis seems to have mysteriously rejuvenated her struggling dentist brother Paul (Josh Pais) whose dental practice is suffering from financial strain. Paul is nebbish and wound-up tight. Also, his awkward people skills leave a lot to be desired. Thankfully, his teen daughter Jenny (Ellen Page, ‘Juno’) lives with him at the family home (Paul and Abby’s late parents’ property) and also acts as his dental assistant at the office. Jenny represents the normalcy in Paul’s nerve-racking life as she is literally the crutch that keeps him standing erect to do what he does day in and day out.

Jenny tries to plead with her father to be proactive and drum up business but he seems to have no motivation whatsoever. So Jenny takes it upon herself to recruit her musician friend Henry (Tomo Nakayama) to get a free dental cleaning just to shake things up a bit. Paul does not approve of Jenny’s initiative to randomly put patients in his dentist chair. Nevertheless, he takes over Henry’s procedure and his magical touch does the trick. Soon, word of mouth spreads as Paul’s reputation as ‘a tooth wizard’ brings in enthusiastic customers looking to get some fantastic oral relief.

Prior to Paul’s re-emergence as a ‘dental rock star’, he took the advice of Abby to see Brownlyn and what she could to loosen him up. There are some amusing scenes where Paul’s skepticism about Brownlyn’s Japanese-inspired reiki treatments turns into his wish to master this very same specialised treatment on his patients. Predictably, Paul would find his attraction to Brownlyn grow beyond picking her brain for healing advice.

When Paul’s brief brush with fortune heads south, the mojo for touch and feel quickly contaminates all involved. Abby tries to inform Paul about his unfair manner in which he is holding back Jenny from moving on to college so that she can pursue whatever it is that she wants to do instead of playing nursemaid to him. Paul resorts back to his sheltered ways when his business collapses again thus prompting a frustrated Jenny to break away from her father. Abby is reunited with an old flame (Ron Livingston) and takes an Ecstasy-inspired ride to submerge her mental troubles. Jenny wants to drown her sorrows by suggesting a desperate physical tryst with Jesse, whose heart still holds out for Abby to return to her senses. Paul decides to uncharacteristically break out of his sheepish mode and let his hair down to liberate his suffocating angst.

Some may reduce the concocted sentimentality in ‘Touchy Feely’ to being too contrived and convenient for its own sake and yes, Shelton does lean on some old conventional off-base fodder (ie the comical references to drug use, transitional vignettes accompanied by a reflective tune sung by Nakayama’s Henry, the picturesque tranquility of suburban Seattle’s landscape, etc.) to convey her narrative’s perky personality. Still, the performances are rather touching (excuse the unintentional pun) and delightfully flaky. DeWitt’s Abby is as sensual and soothing as her massages and one buys into her malaise with a healthy sense of curiosity. As the twitchy Paul, Pais is gently hilarious as being uncomfortable in his own skin. Page’s Jenny is craftily played as the ambivalent young woman that keeps her misery hidden in subtlety as she exists meagerly despite her neurotic father and wounded aunt.

This is a little film without much flash and fury but if you are open-minded enough then allow the breezy ‘Touchy Feely’ to give you an entertaining rubdown of sorts.

Touchy Feely (2013)

Magnolia Pictures

1 hr. 30 mins.

Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney, Tomo Nakayama and Ron Livingston

Directed by: Lynn Shelton

Genre: Drama

Critic’s rating: ** ½ stars (out of 4 stars)

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