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.
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.