Writer-director Lynn Shelton made something of a splash with her 2011 film, 'Your Sister's Sister,' starring gradually mainstreaming indie wunderkind Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt. The movie was a sort of mumblecore tour de force, bringing more increasingly recognizable faces to the screen – considering Blunt's appearances in things like 'Looper' and 'The Five Year Engagement'; DeWitt's roles in 'Mad Men,' and 'The Watch'; and Duplass showing up in 'Safey Not Guaranteed,' 'Zero Dark Thirty' and, of course, his long-running role on FXX's 'The League.'
With 'Touchy Feely,' Shelton welcomes back DeWitt, who heads up an ensemble that includes Allison Janney, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Josh Pais, and a very small role from Ron Livingston, to explore the emotional connections and bonds that frequently go unspoken and unappreciated amongst family members, especially when those individuals' personalities are as different as night and day. DeWitt plays Abby, a massage therapist enjoying a relatively free, unencumbered life that is interrupted when she develops a sudden and unexplained aversion to physical contact with other people. Naturally, this is something of an impediment on her vocation, but the effect carries through to her personal life, as the likely culprit to her current psychological condition is the prospect of being tied down to her younger boyfriend, Jesse (McNairy), who impetuously asked her to move in with him. While Abby's life seemingly implodes, she seeks spiritual refuge with her friend and Reiki master Brownyn (Janney), while finding actual refuge in the house she grew up in, which is currently occupied by her uptight dentist brother Paul (Pais) and his daughter/dental assistant Jenny (Page).
Despite its title, 'Touchy Feely' takes a surprisingly hands-off approach to dealing with its characters and, especially, the family dynamic that exists between the four primary members of the story (Janney plays an integral role, but is largely present to help move the pieces around the board), which results in a somewhat opaque depiction of the characters that can sometimes feel inconsistent. For the most part, outside of her sudden affliction, Abby is fairly easy to get a bead on, but her brother and niece are a different story altogether. In the early moments of the movie, Pais' depiction of Paul presents his rigidity and discomfort with people and interaction with the outside world as being somewhere on the Asperger's/autism spectrum, while Jenny largely remains a cipher, an assistant in character and import to the story, as she has little to do, but progress her father's storyline, by introducing Henry (Tomo Nakayama), a young musician with TMJ. Henry initiates Paul's sudden and inexplicable ability to relieve this painful affliction, and, thanks to word of mouth, his practice is suddenly booming.
Paul's apparent gift puts him in Bronwyn's orbit, where he begins a brief lesson on the ways of Reiki, while simultaneously opening himself up to the possibility of romance for the first time since his wife left him (we assume, anyway, since Jenny's mother is an implied entity at best). Meanwhile, Abby, fearing commitment and struggling to cope with her recent aversion to touching human flesh, moves in with her brother and niece as a means by which she can avoid Jesse, and focus her attention on Paul's refusal to recognize his daughter's unhappiness, rather than correct the issues in her own life. But that's about as far as Shelton seems interested in taking any of these characters: a cursory glance at what's wrong with them, without any real exploration of why and what it means, which is then inevitably followed by a sudden understanding of their situations that feels as abrupt as the unexplained occurrences shaking up their lives.
The film is particularly taken with the idea of drawing some kind of parallel between Abby's aversion to physical contact and her brother's sudden curious healing touch, with the non-tactile practice of Reiki and its interpretation of energy somehow operating as a go-between. But for all the effort the screenplay puts into drawing conclusions from any of these elements and plot threads, Paul's overt eccentricities seem to distract the film from any such fruitful exploration. The intensified focus on his idiosyncratic behavior becomes even trickier when the movie pushes forth into its abrupt denouement with the heavy implication that all Paul needed was a little affection and to loosen up a bit with the help of some recreational drugs and a little late-night dancing in a beige windbreaker. Furthermore, it's not until late in the film that we learn what's really been bothering Jenny, and what role Jesse plays in tangential, and rather loosely developed storyline.
To its credit, 'Touchy Feely' largely avoids going down predictable avenues; but after having watched the film, it's difficult to escape the realization that it managed to avoid those conventional or clichéd roads by not really traveling down any avenue at all. These are glimpses we're given into these characters' lives; simple vignettes dressed up as arcs. None of them are bad, per se; in fact most of them hint at some interesting possibilities, and are filled with people that seem like they're worth knowing more about. Unfortunately, Shelton never really gives the audience a chance to really explore the characters or their stories. While the old adage in Hollywood of "always leave them wanting more" certainly seems to be in play here, these various stories would certainly benefit from never having heard that particular saying.
With a great cast and some interesting performances, 'Touchy Feely' has a lot to offer; it just never musters up the initiative to follow through on these promising elements and truly bring its story to fruition. The end result is a film that feels lackadaisical at best and unfinished at worst, leaving the audience with little to get excited about.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Touchy Feely' is another terrific release from Magnolia Home Entertainment. The disc is a single 50GB Blu-ray that is loaded with special features and is packaged in an eco keepcase. There are a handful of previews before the top menu, but they can be skipped to get right to the feature.
With its 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer 'Touchy Feely' does a fine job in presenting its characters and setting (Seattle) with a nice amount of fine detail that renders faces and complexions lifelike, while the environment is alive with clear and distinct background elements that generate a tremendous amount of depth. Color is also very important here, as the verdant hues normally associated with the Emerald City are on full display in several shots, giving the movie a very distinct look that somehow makes it feel far more authentic. For some reason or another, Shelton made many of the areas in the city look like they were part of a period film, resulting in some strange, but enjoyable visual anachronisms that the image here does a wonderful job of bringing out.
Most of the time, the image has a very high level of contrast, resulting in full-bodied blacks and deep shadows with a clean delineation that's free from banding or other issues of that kind. The image handles Seattle's often-cloudy sky well; there's no sense that the picture is trying to accommodate for a lack of bright, natural light in any way, which furthers the authentic look of the movie.
Aside from a few instances where the image goes a little soft, or doesn't quite match the clarity of other scenes, 'Touchy Feely' comes with a very nice high-definition image.
'Touchy Feely' has been given a robust DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that handles the unexcited, relaxed dialogue of the actors as well as it handles the original score by Vinny Smith. The dialogue is generally pushed through the center channels speakers, but there are times when it will emerge through one of the front channels, or even the rear, if the scene calls for it. There is a nice moment when Henry is singing, and the imaging in this scene is tremendous: Henry's vocals are heard in all the speakers, depending on the angle of the camera.
For the most part, though, that's about as technical as this otherwise basic mix gets. Dialogue obviously plays an important part, and so that is given the majority of the mix's attention most of the time. There are some decent atmospheric effects that help to deliver a sense of place, in a mostly urban setting. There is one scene where Paul wanders into a club, and the music sounds a tad muffled, which is disappointing, considering what the mix was able to deliver when it came to Henry's vocals and the film's score, but that's probably the only place the mix sounded like it was off slightly.
Otherwise, the audio here is strong and well balanced, delivering a film that's easy to listen to, and even has a few surprises up its sleeve.
'Touch Feely' doesn't quite achieve that level of completeness that either of Shelton's other films ('Humpday' and 'Your Sister's Sister') seemed to have going for them. There is an obvious effort on her part to make the film feel as grounded and real as possible, and to generate an interesting juxtaposition with the seemingly unexplained phenomena surrounding the characters. Unfortunately, in that attempt, the movie winds up becoming unbalanced, and the majority of the focus in given to one aspect, leaving the film feeling a little unresolved. Still, if you're a fan of Shelton's previous work, you'll likely find something here to enjoy as well – just not as much of it. With a nice picture and great sound, this one is worth a rental.