There are small independent dramas that are incredibly effective, showing that you don’t need a big budget to make a lasting impact on the audience. Examples from just this year include films like “Fruitvale Station,” “The Way, Way Back,” and Joss Whedon’s excellent adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Then there are small independent dramas that are pretty much dead on arrival, offering up very little in the way of emotion, conflict, characters, or story, where the charm usually associated with these small productions is completely absent. This brings us to Lynn Shelton’s latest film, “Touchy Feely.”
The film consists of a small ensemble, where each person is going through a bit of a strange time in their lives. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a masseuse who suddenly finds that she doesn’t want to have any physical contact with anyone, prompting her to seek out the help of an alternative healer, Bronwyn (Allison Janney). Paul (Josh Pais) is a dentist who sticks to routine, until he finds that he has helped cure patients of pain, leading him to want to learn about healing from Bronwyn. His daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), works as his assistant, but doesn’t really have much interest in the field. The film proceeds as each of them try to deal with their situation in the best way that they can.
“Touchy Feely” has a rather ironic title given that it never touches the audience and never causes them to feel anything for the characters. What we have here is a film that is so light and airy that there is a very good chance that you will forget it as it’s playing on the screen. It contains a pervasive sense of dullness that will have you feeling every minute as they tick by, but as I’ve said before, it doesn’t really help just to say that a film is dull. Knowing why it’s dull will help us get down to its major issues.
One of its most detrimental problems involves the issues that these characters face. Every character’s situation feels as though it popped up out of nowhere, and to make matters worse, none of their predicaments are engaging. For example, Abby’s repulsion at touching people comes on suddenly and is never explained, so we never end up feeling much for her as she goes through her odd problem. It’s very similar with Paul, whose popularity as a healing dentist drops in from nowhere and ends up going nowhere, leaving little impact.
In the same vein, these characters are never developed very far, which is another reason why we end up feeling so uninvolved with their various problems. Shelton seems to think that the quirkiness of her characters’ issues will carry everyone through to the end, but something that superficial is not going to help the ailing problems underneath. Characters that are more fully-formed would be a good start for helping the audience sympathize with them better, instead of just staring at them with complete indifference.
Not even the talent involved could save the material. Ellen Page, an Oscar-nominated actress, seems adrift with her character. Jenny apparently doesn’t have much interest in the dental field, but doesn’t talk to her father about it, even going so far as to fill out college applications without sending them in. She thinks it may be devastating to him if she were to leave, but that’s just not a good enough reason as to why she wouldn’t at least bring up the subject, especially if she’s unhappy.
Then there’s Allison Janney’s Bronwyn. Janney is such a delightful actress, giving memorable performances in projects such as “The West Wing” and “Juno.” It’s unfortunate to find her in a small role like this where she’s given so little to do. In fact, her main contribution to the film is handing over a couple of ecstasy pills to Abby in an effort to help her with her problem. She merely becomes another victim of Shelton’s bland screenplay.
The ending of the film has its own set of issues that involve most of the characters randomly hooking up (Ron Livingston is even thrown in for a couple of scenes for some reason). However, the film is already far gone at this point, so a few more random events aren’t really going to cause much more damage. In a way, it’s rather amusing to see that even Shelton gave up on trying to make sense out of this story, so she just thought “why not?” A little more care and this might have turned into a fascinating entry in the independent drama genre, but with Shelton’s unwillingness to develop her plot and characters, there was little chance of success to begin with. 2/4 stars.
Starts tomorrow in limited release. Now available on Video on Demand.
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