Returning to Sundance just a year after her disappointing Your Sister’s Sister collapsed under its own weight in act three, Lynn Shelton doesn’t have nearly the same luck this time – her latest indie doesn’t even begin to lift its feet off the ground before it falters. Adopting a more conventional aesthetic and production method from the director’s usual improv-workshops, Touchy Feely clearly suffers as a result, feeling atrophied from almost its first scene and never seeming to find a decent comic or dramatic rhythm.
Rosemarie DeWitt is Abby, a massage therapist who develops an aversion to touch just as her boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy) asks her to move in – as a clear allegory for commitment-phobia, it’s not hard to guess where this one is going.
Nevertheless, to contrast this tactile dysfunction, Abby’s dentist brother Paul (the impeccable Josh Pais) discovers that he has a seemingly preternatural ability to cure a chronic jaw condition, which sees his dental practice - previously on the verge of collapse – suddenly start filling up. Then there’s also the issue of Paul’s live-in daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), who it’s clear early on has a crush on Jesse, and may or may not be thinking about doing something about it.
Though there should be no gripes about the film’s premise, it’s the execution that’s all wrong. Shelton clearly struggles with the safety of staged scenes as opposed to handheld improv; here the dialogues between characters feel lifeless and dull, lacking any basic sense of atmosphere and therefore falling totally flat. Meanwhile, those expecting a comedy centered around the touch-based concept are advised to steer well clear; the film runs dangerously low on laughs, and tragically doesn’t manage to compensate with anything dramatically involving either.
Whether it’s the various relationships woes or the Japanese relaxation practised by Bronwyn (Allison Janney) in an attempt to alleviate Abby’s affliction, it all rings horribly false, taking narrative short-cuts at every corner in order to strain for emotional resonance, yet never engaging us in these characters or what they’re doing with their lives. Though performances across the board are solid, they are all almost completely wasted on milquetoast guff like this.
Save for a star turn from veteran character actor Josh Pais, Lynn Shelton’s latest is pretty much dead on arrival.
Touchy Feely premieres at Sundance London on April 26th.
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