Hey, Barbecutie

#52filmsbywomen 10 – Touchy Feely

Posted on: May 14, 2016

toucy feely
No. 10 –Touchy Feely (Lynn Shelton, 2013)

Modern American independent cinema had a creative peak a few years back, and has hit a downturn in recent times. It’s become almost clichéd, these tiny, intimate stories of people and lives and deceptively insignificant occurrences, the short story to the studio’s epics, are now familiar rather than fresh. When did I start to roll my eyes at “quirky” rather than recognise it as shorthand for my type of film? (I don’t know exactly, but I can’t help but think Garden State was involved.) Mumblecore transformed so swiftly from the future of independent cinema to a shorthand criticism that we barely had a chance to make up our own minds. And yet the Mumblecore movement – characterised by ultra-naturalistic performances and dialogue, and a DIY, digital aesthetic – has proved more resilient than expected. The movement’s figures have managed to find a foothold in Hollywood, such as Mumblecore’s most iconic figurehead, Greta Gerwig, with a Golden Globe-nominated turn in Frances Ha, and, uhh, the Russell Brand remake of Arthur, and the Duplass brothers’ regular appearances in comedies like The League, Transparent and The Mindy Project. The movement’s characteristics have even slipped into big event films. Every time a Marvel film pauses for some character-building small talk, that’s the independent spirit shining through.

Lynn Shelton has been one of the most productive of the Mumblecore survivors, augmenting her film work with episodes of respected television like Master Of None and Mad Men, yet producing roughly a feature a year. Touchy Feely is initially fairly typical of Mumblecore output, focusing on personal relationships in a lowkey way, before adding a dash of surreal spirituality. Rosemarie DeWitt is Abby, a masseuse who develops a revulsion of human contact, coinciding with her boyfriend’s attempts to propel their relationship into something more settled. Meanwhile her dentist brother (an impressive Josh Pais) appears to display healing powers which boost the fortunes of his failing practise. Then they both take ecstasy. It’s a film full of plot but little action. Even with the high concept narrative, not a lot happens. Shelton now draws enough prestige to attract an impressive cast – Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Ron Livingston – but their roles are fairly incidental and I wonder what attracted them aside from the chance to be in a Lynn Shelton film. Only Alison Janney gets to make an impact as Abby’s earthy boss Bronwyn, but then this is Allison Janney we’re talking about.

The injection of magical elements into an almost-aggressively realistic set up is a technique I love, and one that has a lot of potential as a plot synopsis. Though Shelton’s film is as beautifully observed as ever, it skews almost too close to reality, with the characters taking a wait-and-see approach to the bizarre situation, and as such the film seems to stop dead as soon as the set up is established. While it allows for some beautiful shots – Shelton punctuates Abby’s scenes with extreme close-ups of human skin, looking like an alien landscape – the film itself is meandering to the point of feeling like a waste. I wish Shelton’s film allowed itself a bit of the wit and energy that it has in its title.


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