‘Touchy Feely’: Worlds in turmoil

September 5, 2013


Lynn Shelton obviously isn’t a filmmaker whose work suits everyone’s taste. With her lightly scripted, improvisational approach to movies, there’s a certain shaggy quality to her work – or at least to the films of hers I’ve seen (and liked): “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister.”

Add “Touchy Feely” to that list. Like her previous two films, it’s a loose, occasionally leisurely tale, focusing less on plot than character. Shelton’s secret is that she finds terrific actors to play those characters, to invest them with a depth and humanity (and wit) that makes their lives interesting, even when there’s nothing big going on.

Not that there aren’t things at stake in “Touchy Feely”: There are. It’s just that the movie isn’t about those stakes, but about the people dealing with them.

There’s Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), a massage therapist in a long-time relationship with a bike-shop owner named Jesse (Scott McNairy). Her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is a widowed dentist whose practice is dwindling, something he refuses to acknowledge despite harping from his daughter (and amateur dental assistant), Jenny (Ellen Page).

One night at dinner, Jesse takes a major step, asking Abby to move in with him. It’s as much of a commitment as either of them is ready for – except that Abby obviously isn’t. She suddenly develops an aversion – nay, a revulsion – when it comes to actually touching people. Kind of a career buzzkill for someone whose job involves healing with her hands.

At the same time, the uptight, uncommunicative Paul takes a step unwillingly (at Abby’s behest), visiting a healer friend named Bronwyn (the invaluable Allison Janney), who practices reiki, a kind of psychic healing which actually seems to work on Paul. Indeed, he suddenly develops the ability to apply a healing touch of his own to patients suffering from TMJ.

If this were a Hollywood comedy, there would be misunderstandings, big reversals, slapstick and the like. Shelton, however, simply puts these actors into these situations and lets them behave like their characters would. As a result, “Touchy Feely” doesn’t build to a contrived climax, just to a subtle series of personal realizations, crises that lead to decisions and choices.

Shelton’s cast responds with warmth and humor, but also insight, to these moments. You get the impression that you’re eavesdropping on a group of people who are coping with circumstances for which they are unprepared but with which they have to deal, nonetheless.

DeWitt, a tough, funny and vulnerable actress, captures the anguish and self-deprecation of the woman whose commitment anxiety – and inability to express it – throws her out of orbit. Pais also captures that sense of a man suddenly finding himself on terra incognita – where life is so much better than he could imagine. Pais, a master of kvetchy understatement, is delightful as a man whose insulated existence is invaded by a world that wants and needs a skill he never knew he had.

“Touchy Feely” isn’t a conventional comedy; Shelton probably wouldn’t even call it a comedy at all. But it offers strong performances and interesting characters, telling stories about people that most other movies are in too much of a hurry to focus on.

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