LYNN SHELTON’S TOUCHY FEELY — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Touchy Feely is more awkward, dark hilarity from Lynn Shelton, with the added benefit of something more cerebral happening from this emotionally probing filmmaker. Not that her work hasn’t been thoughtful in the past, but rather, her 2013 effort evoked some of the same extra-heady feelings that I get while watching Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece Safe, aka the “environmental allergy movie” with a near-possessed Julianne Moore. Working again with Rosemarie DeWitt (fantastic as always) while adding Ellen Page (terrific), Scoot McNairy (consistently brilliant) and the wonderful scene stealer Josh Pais (pricelessly funny), Shelton has crafted an interesting, insular world of repressed, challenging characters who are all looking to break out of their shells and do something with their lives. One of the many things that I appreciate about Shelton’s storytelling style is her almost perverse sense of disdain for overt exposition; you have to work to understand the people in her films, with bits of information doled out in unexpected ways, while she asks you the viewer to do a little mental work and fill in the blanks in an effort to form the full picture. Not everything needs to be spelled out for you, which is why I think I respond so well to her work. All of her films feel improvised or semi-improvised and there’s a looseness to her aesthetic that has always hit the sweet-spot for me, even as her films have gotten more and more visually polished.

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DeWitt is Abby, a successful and prototypical massage therapist, running a beautiful spa in Seattle (Shelton’s home state and favored filmic location). Her shy and slightly odd brother Paul (Pais), is a dentist with a struggling practice, while her boyfriend Jesse (McNairy) seems unsure of what to do with himself as a person. Paul’s daughter, Jenny (Page), is always trying to think the best for her father but knows that he’s just not comfortable in his own shoes; their relationship is very touching to observe. But then something odd starts to happen – Abby develops a revulsion to skin (hard to be a masseuse, no?!), Paul develops a “healing touch” for people with constant tooth pain thus blowing up his business into the stratosphere, and Jesse thinks it’s a great idea for Abby to move in with him, despite his unclear direction in life. All of this is done in a way that feels never overly determined and mildly improvised at times, though from what I gathered, this effort had much more of a traditional script from Shelton than her previous films, which had almost solely relied on well structured improvisational dialogue. The entire film feels like some sort of heightened, bizarre fairy tale, and while it never gets “mystical,” there’s an air of Zen and a constant sense of emotional and spiritual searching that the narrative gives off.

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The always terrific character actor Pais completely steals the show in Touchy Feely, and in a sane world, he would have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar a few years ago; it’s annoys me that he didn’t get the full and proper recognition he deserved, and how these types of performances are sadly overlooked year after year by the Academy. McNairy, as noted earlier, seemingly can do no wrong, and has fast become one of my favorite actors. He’s exhibited amazing taste in material and the filmmakers he’s chosen to work with have all been quality and diverse, and here, he gets to add another interesting portrait to his gallery of low-key character based work. And Page again reminds how effective she can be in these small, personal movies, which is the common theme all throughout Shelton’s career – she’s a filmmaker interested in human interaction and the many ways that we verbally and visually communicate with each other on a daily basis. Because so much of the drama that’s at the center of Touchy Feely is the sort of internal angst (existential to some degree) that might be hard to convey, the film is even more interesting because of how well attuned DeWitt is to the material and to the large and small aspects of her inherently flawed and interesting character. Touchy Feely has been the most divisive film from Shelton in terms of critical reception, and it’s not hard to see why; it’s a unique item that doesn’t play by the normal rules at times, showcasing a lead character who can sometimes feel abrasive (by design) and mentally out of control. And while it’s not my personal favorite out of her oeuvre, it’s yet another distinct, intimate movie from Shelton that focuses on people and human behavior rather than empty CGI or a narrative that we’ve seen 100 times before.

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