“Touchy Feely”: Massage Therapist Averse to Physical Contact

The phrase “touchy feely” has some negative connotations, doesn’t it? Too experiential. Too expressive. Maybe even boundary-crossing bad behavior.

Fortunately, that isn’t what the new film Touchy Feely by writer/director Lynn Shelton is all about. Here’s what Rotten Tomatoes says:

TOUCHY FEELY is a closely observed examination of a family whose delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a sought after massage therapist and a free spirit, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) thrives on routine and convention, running a flagging dental practice and co-dependently enlisting the assistance of his emotionally stunted daughter Jenny (Ellen Page). Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which not only makes her occupation impossible but severely hinders the passionate love life between her and her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy.) Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s ‘healing touch’ begin to miraculously invigorate his practice as well as his life outside the office. As Abby navigates her way through a soul-searching identity crisis, her formerly skeptical brother discovers a whole new side of himself. TOUCHY FEELY is about the experience of living in one’s own skin, both literally and figuratively. The film, written and directed by Shelton, and co-starring Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and newcomer Tomo Nakayama (of the indie rock band Grand Hallway), is filmed on location in Shelton’s hometown and urban muse of Seattle.

The Title

Andrew Schenker, Slant:

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.

The Trailer

You can see (and touch-y and feel-y if you really want) the preview below:

What’s Really Abby’s Problem?

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly:

…a conventional soul who’s hiding her anxiety — even from herself. Abby gives tantric massages, and also gets them from Bronwyn, an aging hippie (Allison Janney, acting mellow for a change), all to keep herself centered. But when Jesse (Scoot McNairy), her boho bike-shop-repairman boyfriend, asks her to move in with him, and she agrees, she falls apart. She suddenly can’t touch anyone’s skin, because she’s so uncomfortable in her own.

Not really sure what happens to Paul, but relationships in this film at the very least tend to be interesting.

The Therapies Involved

Ella Taylor, NPR

What’s different here is Shelton’s joshing affection for practitioners of the flannel-shirted New Age healing therapies of her beloved Pacific Northwest. ‘Your energy’s off,’ Abby’s serene, dirndled mentor Bronwyn (Allison Janney) tells her — and for once, we’re invited neither to snicker nor particularly to believe in the innate powers of reiki massage. You just have to believe, rather, that these walking wounded believe — and that their commitment to weird signs and portents might spur them to take control of their faltering destinies.

Overall the reviews are not exactly “ecstatic” (the drug Ecstasy is used in the plot’s climax). One concluding comment from Ella Taylor, NPR

…Not since Jane Campion’s wonderfully warped Sweetie has a movie so artfully demonstrated that a little magical thinking, or some creative appropriation of pop-culture symbols, or a bit of attention to the signals of the body can propel a lost soul to feel her way toward renewal. In Touchy Feely, faith – and hey, maybe a little therapeutic drug abuse — doesn’t have to be justified. It just has to get you up and running.

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