Touchy Feely

Laura Morgan likes the good bits of Lynn Shelton’s uneven indie dramedy.

Josh Pais and Allison Janney in Touchy Feely

Touch Feely is a film you could easily prejudge. It’s a glimpse into the lives of a quietly dysfunctional family, its focus fairly evenly divided between Rosemarie DeWitt’s Abby, a massage therapist who develops an inexplicable aversion to physical contact just as her relationship with her boyfriend reaches a crisis, and her brother Paul, played by Josh Pais, a diffident dentist who discovers he has a hitherto undiscovered healing touch. The film is set in Seattle and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance festival. If you think that description tells you all you need to know you’re probably right – but there’s plenty to enjoy in this sweet, if patchy, film.

Beyond their careers as hands-on healers, Abby and Paul have little in common. Abby is a free-spirit, dating a younger man – Scoot McNairy’s Jesse – and wearing a beanie hat to let us know she’s quirky. Paul is conventional, conservative and quietly disapproving of Abby’s life choices. That they tolerate one another’s company is down to Jenny, Paul’s daughter, whose lack of enthusiasm for her job as her father’s dental assistant is the tip of an iceberg of frustration and sadness which is the emotional heart of the film. Paul and Jenny spend a lot of screen time wearing medical hygiene masks and acting with their eyes, and that Pais and Ellen Page, playing Jenny, manage to convey such intense and varied feelings in these scenes is both charming and impressive.

Jenny would like to go to college, but is afraid to tell her father she doesn’t want to work for him any more. Jenny would also like to find love and in the absence of any more appropriate target has set her sights on Jesse, her aunt’s sex-drenched boyfriend. Jenny’s friend Henry, played by Tomo Nakayama* would like to be able to sing, but a medical condition prevents him until he is magically cured by Paul, whose failing dental practice gains a new flush of custom as a result. Paul is crippled by reserve, and can’t bring himself to acknowledge Jenny’s unhappiness. Abby thinks she’s happy until one day everything starts to fall apart and she doesn’t know why. Over the course of eighty-eight minutes we’re witness to a slightly wince-inducing level of learning and sharing, and the film’s unevenness comes from the odd contrast between comedy and drama which the film tries to strike and doesn’t always quite manage. Pais and Page’s scenes are painful and awkward but very funny. When we switch focus to Abby we lose some of the comedy and the resultant lurch is unsettling.

As the film goes on and the characters’ stories become more intertwined, though, this inconsistency starts to fade and the moments of exquisite comedy and sharp, sudden beauty begin to complement, rather than contradict, one another. In a cast that’s uniformly good Ellen Page and Josh Pais portray a difficult but loving father-daughter relationship in a subtle and touching way that plays to the extensive strengths of both actors, and Pais especially brings lightness and humour to every scene he’s in with the most minimal of facial expressions and gestures. In a film that’s all about bodies, Pais describes a physical awkwardness and self-consciousness that is heartbreakingly and hilariously recognisable.

There’s not a great deal to this film, but what there is is mostly done pretty well, with occasional flashes of brilliance. But you don’t need me to convince you, anyway: it’s a cute, kooky indie film, and like I said, you already know what to expect.

*If you don’t know him already I would like you to look up Tomo Nakayama, but not until after you’ve seen the movie, because that would spoil the surprise.

Touchy Feely is out on limited release from Friday.


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