Touchy Feely, directed by Sundance darling Lynn Shelton, is a lightly scripted film about the anxieties and social repressions of an American suburban family, conveyed through the language of skin and the fear of touch.
The title doesn’t do it much favours, instead suggesting a cutesy, sentimental film with limited narrative and emotional depth. The talented ensemble cast, however, including Allison Janney and Ellen Page is enough to suggest an entertaining and worthwhile watch.
And the ensemble cast delivers. Josh Pais, who plays laconic and awkward dentist Paul, does an excellent job of conveying his social ineptitude, enabling viewers to feel similar levels of discomfort at watching his onscreen interactions. As daughter and filial replica of Paul’s nervous demeanour, Page bounces off his delivery with her own version of inaudible repression, which comes to a head when she unexpectedly announces her desperate crush on Jesse, her aunt’s boyfriend (played by Scoot McNairy).
Some of the characters are less developed however: in particular Abby, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, who is initially juxtaposed against Paul as his hyper-relaxed sibling, comfortable in her own skin. Her sudden aversion to the skin of others, operating as a metaphor for her sudden fear of commitment to boyfriend Jesse following their arrangement to live together, lacks any meaningful substance. It is not clear why that metaphor is particularly suitable for conveying fear of commitment, besides the convenient link to her profession as massage therapist. Moreover, Abby’s struggle and triumph over her anxiety are thinly explored, leaving the viewer disengaged.
The larger problem the film faces is its lack of narrative purpose. It opens with Abby’s proficient handling of human skin in her role as massage therapist, before it cuts straight to an uncomfortable scene in which Paul struggles to ask his daughter the simplest of questions. Abby and Jesse then appease the tension as they join the two bumbling individuals for dinner. The viewer hopes that at some point soon it will be made clear what the premise of the film is. Unfortunately, however, the subsequent sequence of conversations and events offers little by way of linear plot development.
But for those who are prepared to sacrifice a fully developed plot in return for character depth, who prefer subtlety and allegory over literal expression, who enjoy the gentle, subdued tones of American independent cinema: for those audiences, Touchy Feely will fit the bill.
Touchy Feely is released nationwide on 16th May 2014.
Watch the trailer for Touchy Feely here: