Directed by Lynn Shelton
A lot of my favorite movies are about personal journeys, often those of people who seem to be relatively privileged, all things considered. For example, Noah Baumbach’s 2012 film Frances Ha. It’s about a woman in her mid-20s struggling to figure life out in New York. When I read other reviews of that film online out of curiosity, I found that a common complaint was that nothing in it mattered. Who cares about Frances? She’s a bit ditzy, makes some bad decisions and is a little stubborn, so why should we care about her journey? I read the same thing about the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right which I also quite liked. These complaints are valid, but a little irritating, because I think every story is important enough if the filmmaker cares about it. Take, for example, a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). The fate of the world is at stake, and that movie is absolutely terrible.
The point I’m trying to make is that I didn’t dislike Touchy Feely because the protagonist’s journey felt like it had no stakes. I disliked it because the character arcs felt jumbled, and the tone of the film implied that there was nothing funny about Abby’s and Jenny’s and Paul’s problems. A movie like Frances Ha was full of moments of comedy or vignettes that you were allowed to laugh at as Frances made a fool of herself, both for the comic element and to illustrate her struggle in an adult world. But Touchy Feely took itself too seriously, and the tone revealed how low the stakes were (not to mention how uninteresting the characters were because without humor, these characters aren’t even fun to be around).
Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a massage therapist, and early in the movie she is asked by her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy) to move in with her. While she agrees, this decision causes her some stress, and this may be the reason why she suddenly develops an aversion to physical touch. She leaves an appointment in a hurry, unable to touch a client, and runs into the bathroom to puke. Her journey is about finding out why this is happening, what is causing it and what she can do about it.
Her brother Paul (Josh Pais) is a dentist, and his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) works alongside him as a hygienist. It is established almost immediately that Jenny wants to go to college but has resisted submitting her applications because she feels guilty about leaving her father behind. Paul’s dentistry business is struggling mightily, but he seems reluctant to do anything about it.
Around the time Abby becomes disgusted by skin, Paul becomes a miracle worker, able to cure patients’ mouth and jaw-related pain. The story feels like a body switching movie or any comical film in which one character inherits another’s power (such as in the film Thunderstruck in which an Oklahoma City kid steals Kevin Durant’s basketball ability. This is a real film). So based on the story details, you might expect this to be a comedy, but it the furthest thing from it, outside of maybe Schindler’s List.
Beyond the absurdity of the situation combined with the absolute bleakness of each character’s outlook on life, the film skips over a ton of details. For example, Jenny brings her friend Henry by for a free cleaning. Apparently Henry is a singer, but due to extreme and long-lasting jaw pain, hasn’t been able to sing in a long time. Well Paul cleans his teeth, and Henry claims to be pain free. As a thank you, he gives Jenny two tickets for her and her father to attend his singer/songwriter show. Okay, look, if he was in so much pain as to give up singing, temporarily, how would he already have a show on the calendar? Seems like it would have been cancelled a while back, but sure, okay, I’ll let this one slip.
The story takes place in a short amount of time, but somehow the word spreads mighty quick about Paul’s miracle-working abilities. Patient Zero, of course, is Henry, and he seems like a quiet kid, but apparently he started this spread. Suddenly the small waiting room is packed full of people with long-lasting jaw pain who need help. Why didn’t they bother getting help before? I get that no one likes going to the dentist, but you’d think someone would do something about such pain, and how are there so many of them in a single area? And how, if they hear about Paul’s gift, do they decide that now is the time to finally go to the dentist? If someone told me that their dentist was a miracle worker, I wouldn’t believe them.
The way the story breezes over all of this would normally be fine, I think, particularly if it embraced its own absurdity, like in a comedy. But the film is so serious. There is maybe a hint of humor in Paul’s apprehension towards his adoring fans/patients, but it all comes across as intended heartwarming, not as humor.
Abby can’t stand to be near Jesse during this time, but rather than communicate with him, she runs away. She turns to her friend Bronwyn (Allison Janney), who is a masseuse like she is (though a different type of masseuse). Bronwyn gives Abby two pills of ecstasy, saying it might kickstart her recovery.
Bronwyn also receives a visit from Paul as his healing abilities are getting started. He takes a liking to Bronwyn but more to her techniques, which seem to work. Later, however, Paul’s healing abilities stop, and Jenny runs away for some reason. Maybe a fear of confrontation runs in the family.
Jenny doesn’t have much to do in this film. When I mentioned jumbled character arcs, I was referring mostly to Jenny, though also everyone. Jenny is presented as a loyal daughter, but one who is growing tired of her dentist office-life. She wants to get out there, ya know? She has dreams or something, which is great, and that makes sense. But when she runs away from the office, she heads over to Jesse’s place and after they go to Henry’s show together, she asks to kiss him. She loves Jesse, but Jesse delicately refuses, reminding her that he loves her aunt, Abby.
The film ends with a happy family dinner in which Jenny brings over her new beau, Henry. WHAT ABOUT COLLEGE, JENNY? I will offer some defense of this ending in a quick minute, but first let me recap the other characters’ journeys.
After losing his healing ability, Paul tries to find Jenny but gives up and takes the ecstasy pill that Abby has not yet taken (she has taken the other one). I get that Paul shouldn’t be too worried about Jenny because she’s more than capable of taking care of herself (though I’m unclear on how old she’s supposed to be, so that might affect how you handle her running away), but Paul was definitely very worried about Jenny. So with that in mind, why would he just decide to give up? And why would he take ecstasy? Nothing about his character has suggested he would do this. Yes he opened up to Bronwyn a little, but that doesn’t tell me that he would definitely start taking drugs after a lifetime’s worth of aversion to drugs which he and everyone have been told are bad.
Paul goes to a night club and enjoys his ecstasy before arriving at Bronwyn’s place and kissing her, which surprised me because I didn’t notice any romantic feelings between them before (though it was clear that they were friendly).
Abby, as I briefly mentioned, took ecstasy, and while sitting on a park bench, she is visited by Adrian (Ron Livingston) who has creepily been following her throughout the film. It turns out she lost her virginity to this man, and she follows him to his grandma’s house where it happened. This cures her inability to touch, and she returns to Jesse’s house in the morning, and they’re back to being a happy couple.
The film then ends with a happy family dinner.
What I really hate is how Paul’s arc seems to be needing to let go of his daughter as well as save his struggling dentistry business. He does neither of these things, but he falls in love with someone, and this was only set up by a single scene that showed him and Bronwyn showing some affection to each other. He abandons the idea of letting Jenny go (though it could still happen) and his business is still struggling.
Jenny, what the fuck? There was no indication she liked Henry, and I don’t understand why she liked Jesse? Sure she’s allowed to like Jesse, I mean he seems pretty cool, but like the Paul-Bronwyn relationship, this is based on only a single scene of affection. What Shelton seems to do is throw in one scene or one moment to suggest someone likes someone else, and then at the end they get together. It doesn’t feel like a naturally occurring romance but rather a carefully and thinly constructed romance. There is no indication that she will go to college (unless I missed something, but there are so many issues I have with character arcs here that I must’ve missed a lot of somethings).
Abby and Jesse are happy, and that’s great. They were a kind of couple at first, and now they seem more deeply bonded, but this too is based on a single scene in which Abby tells her friend Bronwyn that Jesse was supposed to be a rebound. This is meant to establish her reluctance to commit to him (on which her skin aversion is most likely based), but there is no indication of what their relationship is really based on (though they do mention it’s sex-oriented) or why it has any better of a chance of working going forward than it did before. If anything, Jesse should be more worried about Abby’s flightiness and unwillingness to tell him what’s wrong.
Here is where I try to defend all those endings. The message of the film is that human contact is good, right? It’s good to have someone to talk to, someone to touch, someone to hug, someone to kiss, someone to make sure you don’t stray too far from the real world. But is that ever set up as a theme early in the story? I don’t think it is.
We know early on that the family is a little strained, and this is based on the way Paul doesn’t seem much to like Jesse, and Jenny’s silent frustrations about not going to college and the guilt she feels towards her father and Abby’s aloofness (of which there is some). These problems aren’t based on love, just human difficulties. They’re real problems, and that’s good, but none of them are addressed. The story seems to say ‘get a significant other and suddenly you won’t care that you’re stuck in a dead end job’ or ‘get a significant other and don’t question whether your relationship is headed anywhere even though you hardly vocalize your problems and she ran away that one time without saying why’ or ‘get a significant other and your business won’t go belly up but even if it does you won’t or shouldn’t care because you have a significant other.’
I guess what I’m saying is that the story suggests these are permanent solutions when they are clearly not. Relationships don’t always work out, and you can’t rely on them to save you from something else. The only relationship that should really matter is the one between the family, and I’ve already said why I don’t think Jenny’s relationship with her father has improved any (GO TO COLLEGE, JENNY), but the relationship between Abby and Paul was never a problem. There was hardly ever a rift between them so seeing them together at the end isn’t any sort of catharsis, because their relationship wasn’t ever in jeopardy. The family as always in tact, but the romantic relationships were the ones at stake.
One more defense, even though I don’t think I worked very hard actually trying to defend my last defense. Maybe Shelton isn’t trying to say that these relationships are the fix to these characters’ problems. But then, what is she trying to say? If you were to show only the last shot of the film to someone and ask them what the theme of this film is, they would say “family.” But as I said above, I don’t think this film ever shows the family to be at stake. So maybe the story wants to tell you that if things are ever bad, you can always rely on family. That’s a great message, but things do appear to work out for the characters in their other relationships.
I don’t know what else to say. I don’t mean to try to rip this movie to shreds (It’s better than any feature film I could make right now), but I’ve only seen one other Lynn Shelton movie, 2011’s Your Sister’s Sister, and I absolutely adore that film. I think that by trying to really pick apart this movie (and there are probably things I didn’t discuss or forgot to mention) I’m trying to understand where it went wrong so I can better understand what makes a story work or not work.
The things this film could do better: Make the tone more comic so that it doesn’t feel like the story is saying that these characters’ problems are the end of the world, because they’re not. I would care much more about Abby’s journey if I cared about her, and I didn’t care about her. If anything I found her irritating and selfish. Josh, the protagonist in The Puffy Chair is also a little irritating and selfish, but I was more invested in his journey because I think he recognized some of his own problems and was trying to fix them. Abby doesn’t try to fix her own problems. She goes to Bronwyn to be fixed, and then she takes ecstasy and that does the trick. I think the story should have been careful not to abandon the other characters’ personal arcs. It feels to me like we learn that Jenny likes Jesse and that she likes to cook and wants to go to college just so she doesn’t feel two dimensional, not because they meant anything to the story or even two Jenny.
If I want to make this film work but can’t change anything about it, maybe I would write a short passage to put on the poster about how this film is about misplaced affection. I don’t know if I entirely believe this idea, but I think it could cover the characters’ behavior and show how they err and will probably err in the future. Then the story isn’t about sad people with bleak problems but rather interesting character types who get too invested in their own worlds and are destined to make many of the same mistakes after seeking temporary solutions that they are convinced are permanent. If this were somehow the message, the film could start with a depiction of how each character has just broken up with someone, essentially implying that they’re leaving their last relationships, which they were convinced were permanent, to re-enter the painful world only to look for the next permanent but really temporary solution.