Sean K. Cureton

Every Man is an Island in Touchy Feely

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on August 15, 2015 at 11:25 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Touchy Feely (2013)
Directed by Lynn Shelton
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Lynn Shelton, whose closest compatriot and thematic composite within the realm of independent cinema would be director Joe Swanberg, makes films about people in varying states of intense mental-emotional flux. In films like Hump Day and Your Sister’s Sister, Shelton tackles the fragility of our shared human-nature as a malleable mold by which the emotions of love, loss, remorse, regret, happiness, sadness, and depression may be evoked via the individual spirits of her own imagining. Last year, Shelton was graced with her first chance to work with a big name cast in Laggies, which starred Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell as two wayward adults acting up as children, their own emotional maturities lacking despite their otherwise advanced biological ages. But it is in her sixth directorial feature, Touchy Feely, where such an emotional longing and state of arrested development is articulated the most personally and cohesively. In Touchy Feely, Shelton’s chief protagonists are trapped in a state of co-dependent despondency towards and through one another, a state of self-inflicted, delusional compassion that proves an ironic tendency necessitated by our better natures, however defeating and isolating such a form of misguided tenderness can become; a feeling, moreover, in keeping with Shelton’s peculiar, homeopathic brand of storytelling that proves to be communally healing in the process.

Touchy Feely is primarily concerned with the inner lives of a small, alternative-blend of the nuclear family unit. In Shelton’s film, brother and sister Abby and Paul, who are played by Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais respectively, are closed off from themselves and other people in their own idiosyncratic ways. Abby is a massage therapist whose desire to heal through the immediacy of physical touch is thematically dissimilar in nature and feeling from her brother Paul, who acts as the counterbalance to Abby’s off-kilter, hipsterism. Paul is a straight-laced family dentist whose monosyllabic existence belies an intensely closed off and shut-down personality perhaps never allowed the space to truly come into its own. In essence, Touchy Feely is the narrative equivalent of the Yin and the Yang, Abby and Paul representative of the need in the world for opposite forces to clash with one another, yet ultimately coalesce and thrive with each the other’s opposite, working in harmony and peaceful coexistence.

When Abby becomes emotionally troubled and Paul becomes more intrigued by a strange, new-found ability to perform Reiki, another form of alternative healing administered through direct person-to-person contact through touch, their worlds are thrown out of orbit. Shelton’s film then becomes an off-balance examination of the personal histories and learned philosophies that come to define ourselves and the worlds that we largely establish around ourselves that cohere to personal idealisms, and how the solipsism of independent thought can be altered to include other people and worldviews into our lives. Abby and Paul are both tortured human souls eager to find belonging, and both characters are held back by assumptions made on the behalf of ego play-acting as co-operative attitudes. Yet there is hope in Shelton’s film for reconciliation, as the film’s climactic third act proves to be true within the singular story of the film’s script, and in our own lives. As Touchy Feely teaches viewers, in its evocation of emotionalism retooled as a collective ability for societal compassion, every man, woman, and child is an island, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build bridges between them, us, and ourselves in order to feel more whole and inter-connected.

Shelton’s characters, especially in a film such as Touchy Feely, may appear unfeeling, towards themselves and one another, at first. In the opening scene to Shelton’s sixth film, the family dinner tableaux so evocatively established is familiar in its visceral sense of disconnection and miscommunication held between its congregants. Paul and his daughter Jenny, played with an undeniable tenderness of human compassion by Ellen Page, couldn’t be further from understanding one another, their terse, clipped exchanges with one another relaying only the most supplementary of information about themselves and how they feel about their lives lived beholden to each other. Likewise, Abby and her boyfriend Jesse, played with a disjointed lightheartedness by Scoot McNairy, disguise their own misunderstanding of one another’s intentions through gratuitously ironic physical intimacy. Each one of these characters has so much love and feeling that they want to put out into the world and share with the other people in their lives; but it is in their shared inability to do so that is so fascinating in a film such as this one, and it is in this very articulation of familial miscommunication that is Shelton’s core strength as a writer, a director, and an invaluable filmmaker of the contemporary independent film industry.

Touchy Feely is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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