The title of Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, which literally refers to lead character Abby’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) profession as a massage therapist, serves as a guiding metaphor for the film’s exploration of human connection and emotional estrangement. As far as ruling metaphors go, it’s a rather obvious one, but Shelton overcomes the base literariness of the conceit by crafting a film of astonishingly sustained mood and by tying this beguiling atmosphere to the mental states of her characters.
Chronicling the ups and downs of a Seattle family, Shelton imbues her film with a hushed sense of mystery, present in both the relative quiet of the soundtrack and a visual strategy that simultaneously paints her settings with a lushly colored palette and keeps everything at a cold remove through the sterility of the digital imagery. This is a world where the occurrence of mystical events and small miracles don’t feel out of place, but where the biggest miracle is always any kind of true emotional connection between its characters.
While Abby agrees to move in with her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy) and begins to suffer a mental breakdown which leads her to recoil from human touch, her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), a man so uncomfortable around other people that he seems barely able to communicate in complete sentences, finds his dying dental practice magically transformed after he appears to have acquired a magic healing touch. Meanwhile, his daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), who works as an assistant at his office, longs to break free from his orbit and pursue her own life.
Shelton understands human behavior to be essentially irreducible to easy formulas and the world to be full of inexplicable wonders. Thus she smartly refuses to give any definitive explanation of Abby’s breakdown or her brother’s acquisition of his newfound powers. But that’s not to say that the director isn’t interested in observing the intricacies of human interaction, a curiosity that results in a series of encounters between characters whose repeated attempts at achieving intimacy are exactingly mapped out in their frequently awkward details by the talented ensemble.
Fitting her aesthetic to her character’s moods, Shelton reaches the apogee of her filmmaking late in the movie when she ties a series of loving panning shots of an empty house to Abby’s wistful reveries, the image and word literally disconnected, but thematically coherent. Unfortunately, after that scene, the director succumbs to the need to conclude her story along more conventional lines. The result is a rather shockingly hasty resolution, an unsatisfying shortcut in the journeys of Paul and Abby toward recovery and regaining both their literal and symbolic sense of touch.