I may be temperamentally predisposed to appreciate a specific strain of low-key indie dramas, because I often find myself enjoying small, unsensational movies that are consistently panned as "boring" by the majority of users on websites like IMDb and Letterboxed. While most of the better post-mumblecore efforts eventually find their audience, Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely hasn't; there are very few praises mixed in with all the naysayers, possibly due to misleading marketing (it's not a comedy, as the poster promises) and an off-puttingly cute title. Touchy Feely may not explore its intriguing ideas with complete success, but its performances are so honest and affecting that, by the end, it felt like a richer experience to me than maybe it should have.
Rosemarie DeWitt (the featured actor chosen by this month's movie slot machine) stars as Abby, a masseuse whose lack of confidence in her unexpectedly developing relationship with Jesse (Scoot McNairy) manifests in a fear of personal contact. Meanwhile, her introverted dentist brother, Paul (Josh Pais), who is uncomfortable with personal attention, receives a surprising surge of business when it's rumored that he can relieve chronic TMJ pain. Paul's daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), struggles with her own confidence issues due to a lack of affection and affirmation from her withdrawn father.
While some have ascribed a supernatural angle to Touchy Feely — that both Abby and Paul actually possess healing "powers" at alternate points in the film — that feels like a wildly literal interpretation of the psychological phenomenon Shelton is examining. the characters in Touchy Feely are, variously, resisting and opening up to being touched, to allowing the very real powers of trust and hope to affect them physically, in some cases manifesting as a placebo. But just like the physical afflictions plaguing Paul's customers, he, Abby and Jenny suffer from equally debilitating aches that can only be healed by fully surrendering to the risks of human intimacy.
Shelton has interesting ideas at work in Touchy Feely, but her third act is problematic. As two characters turn to drug trips to break down the barriers that they have created in their own minds, it feels at first like both a cop-out and an indie cliche. However, this unexpected diversion ultimately ties the story together very well intellectually, and the climax draws such delicate performances out of every one — Page and McNairy, especially, who have a heartbreaking moment together — that the common sense of relief shared by the various states of healing is remarkably stirring.
Whatever its narrative shortcomings, Touchy Feely is a fantastic showcase for its cast, with each of the principals subtly expressing crippling emotional anxieties while maintaining outward normalcy. In addition to the wonderful leads, Alison Janney is typically perfect in a small role, and Ron Livingston lurks around with an unfortunate haircut. Musician Tomo Nakayama acts as well as performs.
Touchy Feely is now my 4th favorite of seven Rosemarie DeWitt movies.