Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, wrote, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." American families, in their pursuit of happiness, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, take great measures to avoid pain. Lynn Shelton in her movie Touchy Feely examines what happens when pain suddenly becomes inevitable but there's a touching and sweet conclusion, with plenty of laughs along the way.
How linked are those who share DNA? When one family member falls into crisis, do the others feel the fall-out? It's a fascinating theory and one that Touchy Feely, explores beautifully, slowly and with a few surprising twists of a somewhat chemical nature.
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Touchy Feely discovers what happens when the psychic balance of a family is disrupted, upended and everyone is changed for the better -- eventually. Along the way we see how whom you're related to is how you relate to the world. But when they change, you can too.
The movie opens with the soothing voice of a massage therapist and your shoulders drop as you sink into your seat and slip happily into the unfolding tale. This is Abby (Rosemarie DeWit), a modern hippie with an ancient healing touch. Her practice room is quiet, spare, scented with lavender, rosemary and sensual vibes. Contrast this with her brother Paul (Josh Pais). Paul is uptight. Paul is a dentist. Paul lives in the house the siblings grew up in and he resents having paid the property taxes all these years. Paul's daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) is trapped inside her father's dwindling small life. Suddenly you feel rather stiff in the neck and shoulder area and irritable.
Luckily the two supporting characters enter to break the tension, and you know the story is going somewhere good. Jesse (Scoot McNairy) is Abby's boyfriend -- he's an ex-anarchist bike messenger turned activist bike mechanic (and a modern man who cooks tofu and is emotionally available). The wickedly brilliant Allison Janney (Bronwyn) plays a crucial role in decoding disaster as the Reiki master who tells Abby to get out of her head (literally) and into her body. Janney also has the flowing robes and caramel-rich voice of a soothsayer down pat and is a joy to watch.
The crisis hits when Abby's body betrays her. Suddenly struck with an awful aversion to skin and touch -- the very tools of her trade -- she starts to question everything in her life. She begs Bronwyn to "Fix me!" but is told, gently and firmly, "You can fix yourself". But she cannot, until the strangest thing happens. In a transfer of energy, her healing gifts jump to her brother. His dental practice booms -- but not for his clever work with cavities. Paul is transformed -- and in a very funny and gently touching scene -- is liberated by Bronwyn.
Abby continues to fall apart -- and is terrified. DeWitt conveys this terror so well. It is unnerving to lose your gifts, especially if they were so transient and mysterious in nature to begin with. As her livelihood ebbs away, Paul blossoms and then Jenny, in turn, breaks open. Shelton could have done the obvious but she pulls back from simple neat conclusions. We watch each character wade through the messy bog of painful family encounters. We wince as Jenny tries to cook her way out of an emotional crisis while her aunt is holed up in her apartment losing touch with reality.
Then the unlocked passions morph the family dynamic into something very new and strangely hopeful in its quirkiness. This is where Shelton's exquisite visual eye and background as an editor gives her the power to linger on truly lovely scenes. Seattle has never had such an elegant compliment onscreen. Some scenes are just so lovely that you lean back and remember why the large-scale cinema auditoriums are so glorious. This is a very interesting film, very sensual and thoughtful and beautiful to look at. It's also a very interior, emotional piece -- take Kleenex and an open mind and go with the flow. Because unhappiness and pain in families are just signposts that something needs to change -- and Touchy Feely is all about the transformation.