Lynn Shelton’s previous works – Humpday, My Sister’s Sister – may have dallied in your local arthouse cinema, but her latest effort didn’t make the same sort of dent as these when released in America last year. It has in its favour a respectable cast full of people you like watching (Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney, the voice of Raphael in the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Josh Pais), but despite the wealth of talent involved Touchy Feely fundamentally fails to engage.
My Sister’s Sister‘s Rosemary DeWitt stars as Abby, a massage therapist who develops and aversion to human contact. What follows is ninety minutes of depressed and repressed people slowly failing to talk about what’s bothering them. It’s well acted – presumably when the performances are uniformly restrained this has been imposed – and isn’t offensive in its quality, it’s just that I don’t really know why Shelton wanted to tell this story.
Abby’s problem completely destroys her ability to do her job, and her inability to cope with it destroys her relationship, which in turn sends her into a bout of malaise. Simultaneously, her dentist brother (Pais) gains a reputation for having healing hands and his business and demeanour improves. This potentially interesting idea remains unexplored. You get the sense there could be an interesting film here but a strong follow-through idea was lacking.
Brief moments of strange surfaces and their feel are reminiscent of Upstream Colour, but while that capitivated through weirdness and being obtusely eliptical, this doesn’t do much for the senses or grey matter. There are no astonishing visuals, unless you’re a dermatologist who thinks knee skin could do with more close-ups in film, and one suspects that there’s nothing worth cogitating over here, even if the film gripped you enough to care.
Character-wise, no-one really leaps out either. Some people are upset because their lives are staid, or because they have had a sudden problem thrust upon them. They get more upset (albeit very quietly), then do something sociable, then they feel better. That’s the narrative, really. It’s hard to see what vital urge gripped anyone to communicate the contents of this movie, but I suppose you can’t spell mumblecore without ‘um’.
You’d be forgiven for thinking, from the title, that it might be a smug little comedy convinced of its own cleverness, but far from it. If anything this is a shy film, or possibly one that’s on ketamine. It feels tranquilised. There is so little energy coming off the screen that it doesn’t register enough to be a slog, and so rather than be actively annoying the only genuinely irritating part is that it ends abruptly and after so little incident that you suddenly realise it’s a waste of time. It’s rather like an energy saving lightbulb flickering into life just as you need to leave the room.
This isn’t intended as a criticism of the acting, but the slight story, characters and dialogue are not exactly memorable, and the lack of incidental music and occasional languishing shot of not very much happening doesn’t help. While Shelton’s previous works have been partly improvised, here the framework feels underdeveloped.
The dialogue and performances do feel semi-improvised, aiming for naturalistic but being so low-key as to feel strange. People hesitate a lot. Don’t expect pace or sparks. Even the angry people seem oddly muted, and everyone talks in this same withdrawn way, which doesn’t help when there’s little else to grip onto. Kudos to the boom operator anyway.
Occasional glimmers of humanity peak through. Pais attending a Raiki session with Janney offers a rare moment of levity, and a later scene with Paige’s Jenny – Abby’s niece – and McNairy’s Jesse – Abby’s boyfriend – where they actually address their emotions means that the characters finally feel real in these brief moments. Overall, this stylised approach runs the risk of losing you, becoming so much ambient backdrop and aiding to the generally disengaged vibe the movie gives off.
Maybe if you’ve got a baby sleeping in the next room and want to watch something without it waking them it might well be ideal, or if you feel very tired but have an overwhelming need to watch something. Otherwise this is a disappointing and strangely lifeless affair considering the talents and ideas involved.
Touchy Feely is released on 16 May 2014.
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