As evidenced by its title, Touchy Feely aims for emotion on an intimate level. The healing touch (or lack of it) is the name's basic pun, but this drama / comedy focuses on a cast of characters who are holding their feelings back, afraid of the emotional contact two people can share. It sounds like prime material for director / writer Lynn Shelton: her last film, Your Sister's Sister, took an unexpected love triangle and handled both screwball comedy and hidden truths with unexpected tenderness and warmth. Sadly, there seems to be a bit of "art imitates life" with Touchy Feely, which only fleetingly succeeds at bringing the audience into the emotional head space of its characters.
Touchy Feely reteams Shelton with Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Abby, a massage therapist rebounding from her last relationship by dating a younger guy, Jesse (Scoot McNairy). During dinner with her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), and his daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), Jesse offers to let Abby live with him when she moves out of her apartment at the end of the month, which she graciously accepts. The next day, however, she finds herself suddenly unable to make contact with her patients' skin -- the mere sight of it makes her nauseous -- and her relationship with Jesse begins to suffer as a result. At the same time, Paul's dentistry business starts booming when he and Jenny treat one of her friends and his jaw pain mysteriously disappears, leading to a surge of new customers looking for Paul's "healing touch."
There's plenty of comic and dramatic material waiting to be mined from a massage therapist who can't bring herself to touch anyone, but there's something missing from either the film or DeWitt's performance that keeps Touchy Feely from soaring. Although Shelton shows us that Abby is bottling something up inside, the fact that Abby is just as unsure of what's blocking her as the viewer presents a conundrum. On the commentary, Shelton mentions that the film sprung out of her own bout with depression, and of course, true depression is often mysterious, but there's no denying that it's hard to relate to Abby when her conflict is so vague. The most likely solution for this is to give Abby a strong sounding board, allowing details and feelings to be pulled out of the characters' interactions, but of course the point is that Abby withdraws. Scenes that offer the possibility of character work are strangely uninteresting, such as a moment where Abby tries to convince Jesse that a hit of ecstasy might help them both.
The other half of the film is more successful. Pais is very funny as Paul, a man whose body appears to fight his need to talk and be around other human beings (he frequently just whimpers quietly when presented with a situation he isn't prepared to address). After his dentistry techniques suddenly start working miracles on people, he loosens up, even going to visit Bronwyn (Allison Janney), a friend of Abby's who specializes in an energy technique known as raiki. Meanwhile, Jenny struggles to get ahold of her secret crush on Jesse, bringing him food at work and eventually inviting him out to see Paul's first cured patient, Henry (Tomo Nakayama), whose ability to sing returns after the treatment. The scene that Page and McNairy share afterward is one of the film's best, as compassionate and tender as anything I've seen all year.
Shelton is part of the mumblecore movement, in which scenes for a film are improvised based around basic ideas. For Touchy Feely, Shelton wrote more of a screenplay than usual, with the actors generally only improvising the transitional ends of scenes while being sure to incorporate scripted lines and exchanges in the middle. It may be odd to suggest that Shelton's stumbling block is planning the film in more detail, considering that technique makes up 99% of films, but whatever it is that prevents Touchy Feely from finding the viewer's emotional pressure points is unclear. Although there are moments of honesty and affection here, Shelton's protagonist and her emotions remain curiously out of reach.
Touchy Feely is graced with simple artwork built around a production pic of Rosemarie DeWitt holding an umbrella. On the front cover, she's joined by Pais and Page, with boxes displaying the entire ensemble cast at the top (the order of the names and photos actually match!). The same photo of DeWitt appears on the disc, flying solo. It's a slick, clean design, but also fairly generic -- the more hand-written font on the back might've been good for a more unique-looking cover design. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The first shot in Touchy Feely is on the frightening side, from a PQ standpoint -- intense banding rises up as the film fades in. Thankfully, although this 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation is a little rough around the edges, it's not as disastrous as the shot implies. In dark scenes, the banding can reappear in smaller quantities, as well as some artifacting, and colors fluctuate a little, with reds occasionally blooming slightly. Still, the digital photography is generally quite detailed and nicely saturated, and all the flaws appear to trace back to the source, in keeping with one's expectations for a modern low-budget film.
A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is generally not burdened with great expectations, with the majority of the film's audio devoted to dialogue. However, there are a couple of stand-out sequences where the precision of the mix and the original elements is quite nice -- specifically, Tomo Nakayama's performance of "Horses" sounds wonderful. Other music, by composer Vinny Smith, also sounds quite nice, and there is frequently an agreeable, natural ambiance to the material recorded outdoors. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Spanish and French subtitles are also included.
The main extra on the disc is a audio commentary by director / writer Lynn Shelton and actors Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais. This lively, funny track tends more toward the anecdotal than the technical, with the trio warmly remembering improvisation, the long development process of the film and the characters, and the ways Catherine Keener served as the project's guardian angel. There are little to no gaps in the conversation and the track is very funny -- easily the best extra on the disc for fans of the film.
The rest of the disc is made up of short or promotional video extras. Outtakes (4:12) and deleted scenes (6:30) are both surprisingly thin, with the outtakes reel basically being two more deleted scenes with a laugh at the end rather than a series of crack-ups. The most substantial section on the disc contains four interviews with Allison Janney (7:42), Scoot McNairy (5:22), Josh Pais (10:08), and Lynn Shelton (8:38), with a "Play All" option (31:51). These aren't too dry, and it's nice to hear from Janney and McNairy about working with Shelton, but the latter two interviews can probably be skipped, as Pais repeats most of his stories on the commentary, and Shelton has the job of summarizing the film and explaining the characters. The disc wraps up with "axsTV: A Look at Touchy Feely" (3:02), which is little more than a glorified trailer for the film, with clips from the same interviews the viewer has likely just watched.
An original theatrical trailer for Touchy Feely is also included. Additional trailers for Drinking Buddies, Prince Avalanche, Best Man Down, Mr. Nobody, and a promo for axsTV play before the main menu, and are also accessible from the bottom of the special features menu. All of the video extras are presented in HD.
Although Touchy Feely is not entirely successful, there are more than enough moments from an ensemble cast to make it worth a look. Fans of Shelton will also appreciate the disc's very funny commentary track, which more than make the disc worthy of a rental.
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