Sundance Review: 'Touchy Feely'

In "Touchy Feely," a New Age massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) in the midst of moving in with her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy) finds her life in upheaval when she inexplicably develops an aversion to touch. At the same time, her stoic and conservative brother (Josh Pais) reinvigorates his failing dental practice when he discovers that he has the ability to heal TMJ. His daughter (Ellen Page) attempts to assist him at his dental practice but secretly longs for a life of her own.

The performances here are adequate but nothing spectacular, unfortunately. DeWitt is wonderful as usual, displaying her usual naturalistic intuition that says more in the smaller movements and motions than words ever could. Allison Janney deserves kudos for her role as a Reiki specialist who helps Pais's character tap into his inner healer. If you're hoping for any kind of interesting interactions between Ron Livingston and his real life wife DeWitt, look elsewhere as the couple is only in a few short scenes together and Livingston's role is extremely small.

Setting the film in Seattle lends it an air of believability to the slightly out-there characters, and places Pais's square character even more firmly on the outside of this permissible, open culture. The film wrestles with unfulfilled desires and acceptance of our own limitations. The characters are all in transit, struggling towards something greater than what it is they have, or seeking to merely reattain what they have recently lost. It does a great job of exploring the body horror and disgust felt by DeWitt's character, with macrocosmic shots of skin that take on an unexpected layer of menace.

Shelton struggles to strike a balance between the two story lines, which are obviously enmeshed but feel unrelated at times, a family unit that seems to lack unity. The ending feels slightly unearned, a bit too easy of a resolution. However, there are moments of startling clarity. Ellen Page is heartbreaking in her gentle and unrequited love for a man who doesn't love her, and one of the strongest scenes in the film revolves around her asking him to love her, knowing it won't happen, and accepting instead that he might hold her for a moment and let that be enough. How often we allow ourselves to subsist on the merest scraps of love, nourishing our obsessions on crumbs when there's an entire feast waiting nearby if only we could see it and accept it.

There's a few excellent moments in the movie, and some brilliant, beautiful displays of cinematography, but overall, the film is far too slow and drags horribly from the midpoint on. It's a huge misstep for director Lynn Shelton, who usually displays such skill and attention to detail in her work, as in the lovely "Your Sister's Sister." And while I'm all for genre and convention-busting, "Touchy Feely" can't seem to find its footing, wandering lost between two story lines that feature difficult-to-care-about protagonists with little to add to the conversation.

Grade: C+

Movie & TV Awards 2018