Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Touchy Feely

Just a couple more weeks of reviewing every new movie I see as part of my Movie Diet, which you know about by now, so I will no longer link to it.

My adoration for the work of director Lynn Shelton knows no bounds. Granted, prior to last week I had only seen two of her movies, but my affection for those two movies is through the roof. I ranked her film Humpday among my top 15 of 2009, and would rank it higher if I were making those rankings today. And I really went crazy for her 2012 film Your Sister's Sister, as only one other film ranked higher at year's end. That one was probably a bit too bullish, but the two movies average out to a couple of pretty captivating sits.

Now that I've seen Touchy Feely, I'll modify that opening statement: My adoration for the work of director Lynn Shelton knew no bounds, but now some bounds have been put in place. Which doesn't mean her unheralded 2013 film, which largely seemed to escape notice, isn't valuable enough to earn a modest recommendation.

Shelton is pretty high-concept as far as filmmakers who came out of the mumblecore movement are concerned, and Touchy Feely is no different. In a bit of irony that would seem pretty contrived if it weren't being handled in such an independent manner, Touchy Feely concerns a massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt, star of Your Sister's Sister) who suddenly stops being able to touch other people without a sense of revulsion. This psychological threat to her means of making an income is in some way a manifestation of the increasing seriousness of her relationship with her boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Abby's uptight dentist brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is having the reverse sort of phenomenon occur: he suddenly discovers he has the ability to magically cure headaches that are caused by his patients grinding their teeth, an ability that's cultivated by a new age healer (Allison Janney). However, what Paul can't recognize is that his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) needs to forge her own way in the world instead of continue to apprentice in his dental practice.

The title of Shelton's film is darn near cheeky, which may prepare the viewer for something light and whimsical. This is perhaps only Shelton's first of several misdirections in the film, none of them intentional and none of them particularly effective. However, this isn't to say there's no truth in the meaning of her title: The film ends up being touchy feely in a way that's not so cheeky, nor so great, as it wades into some rather squishy emotions in a rather humorless fashion. In fact, Touchy Feely finds Shelton taking further steps away from the kind of naturalism that came so effortlessly in her films that bore more of the hallmarks of mumblecore, notably Humpday. It's not that Shelton has not dealt with frail human emotions before, because in all of her films she has. It's that they have taken on kind of an ethereal, stylized aspect that does not entirely work here. In fact, moments of Touchy Feely remind one of a Miranda July film, except without July's distinct oddball charm that keeps her films from feeling oppressive.

I suppose one of the things that makes Touchy Feely so odd is another way it incorporates the meaning of the title, which is that two characters take ecstasy. Ecstasy is a drug known for the way it breaks down a person's normal inhibitions, especially as it comes to personal space and expressing one's feelings of affection toward others -- even if that affection is entirely chemically-induced. However, ecstasy has most often been used in the movies in a purely comedic manner, as a character gets accidentally dosed and acts out all the symptoms of an ecstasy trip in ways with which we are all, by now, exhaustingly familiar. To its credit, Touchy Feely does not use the drug in that fashion, but the way it does use it is strange enough that it cancels out the benefits of not being cliched. Put simply, for both characters, ecstasy functions as a medicinal means of psychologically unblocking them, in a purely positive manner that almost seems naive. It's not that a movie has a responsibility to take a parental stance toward the drug, though Touchy Feely does have some gestures in that direction as well. It's that by creating unambiguously positive outcomes for both the characters who take the drug, it seems to be aligning itself with a number of idealistic rave movies that came out when the drug was first entering a new phase of mainstream popularity, such as Greg Harrison's Groove. As a result, Shelton's movie feels a bit turn-of-the-century, and dare I say it, immature.

Fortunately, this odd character piece, composed of largely ill-fitting parts, is buoyed by the maturity of its performers. Two in particular truly shine. DeWitt proves her magnificence in nearly every movie she's in, and she handles this character's potentially unenviable journey with true grace. The massage therapist who hates touching people is almost set up to be a joke, but DeWitt doesn't allow anything about her performance to approach the camp that could have characterized the role if she had let it. The true find here, though, is Page, who plays a character perhaps more different from the one that made her famous (Juno MacGuff) than any she's ever played. There's no whip-smart buoyancy to this character, the dentist's daughter -- there's just melancholy and longing. Those emotions could be one-note, of course, but Page brings a soulful dimension to them, especially killing it in one scene where she confesses a crush she knows will not be reciprocated. The little nuances of her speech and facial expressions in this scene are simply stunning.

Not everyone fares as well as these two, though. Josh Pais is stiffer, a lot stiffer, even than the character is meant to be. In fact, given his lack of career heat relative to the others who appear here, I was struck by the feeling that he didn't belong in this group, and must have been cast as a favor. Pais does improve a little as the movie wears on -- so I guess we have the ecstasy to thank for that as well.


Nick Prigge said...

"...remind one of a Miranda July film, except without July's distinct oddball charm that keeps her films from feeling oppressive." Yes! Blimey! That's it!

I confess, I was NOT a fan of this film, and yet I struggled to pinpoint exactly what made me dislike it so much, possibly because I just didn't really want to put too much thought into it. But that.....that is exactly what I was feeling. Good call.

You're right about DeWitt & Page, though. Their performances were spot-on. It was just the movie's tone and the way it went about conveying its story..... I just couldn't get there. I couldn't get anywhere close to there.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah, I got the feeling Shelton was experimenting with something and it wasn't working. The July thing hit me around the time when DeWitt has that long come-to-Jesus with Ron Livingston ... which didn't really work either.

I don't think I'm really a fan of this film either, though I did give it three stars on Letterboxd. I'm an old softie these days, handing out three stars left and right to movies that do at least something right. I put my foot down when I rated Turbo, however -- I would go no higher than 2.5