In Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely (2013), a massage therapist and holistics enthusiast finds herself developing a mysterious aversion to bodily contact. Eschewing the narrative intensity of the mumblecore sub-genre in favour of a more corporeal approach, Shelton’s latest attempts to elevate her middle-class narrative into something more transcendent and less conceptually defined. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) has found herself at a crossroads in her life. Business is booming but she’s unsure whether or not she should move in with her new boyfriend, Jesse (Scott McNairy). Her brother Paul (Josh Pais), a dentist, invites her to live in their parent’s old house with him and his aimless daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page).
Struggling to decide whether she should move in with a man who was only intended to be a rebound from a previous relationship or her blundering brother, Abby finds herself developing a paralysing fear of contact. Inversely, her brother appears to have caught her healing powers – a bizarre Freaky Friday plot twist that’s never satisfyingly rationalised nor elaborated upon. With Touchy Feely, Shelton appears to be following the well-trodden path of her contemporaries by searching for a mature, yet mischievous tone preferred in today’s accessible American independent cinema. Sadly, the film feels like yet another product of the recent studio appropriation of mumblecore as a commodity, ultimately removing any semblance of individualism and feeling like just another product off the factory conveyor belt.
Shelton’s characters come across as superimposed from the vanguard of the movement, lacking in empathy and at worse being genuinely dislikable; especially DeWitt’s shallow masseuse, who’s a clear and irritating product of a Brand Ethical society that achieves contentment through a sense of betterment over their peers. The inability of people to make authentic connections in a world dominated by social media feels like a pertinent topic, but by removing any sense of empathy from her characters, Shelton finds herself equally unable to connect with her audience. More cloyingly still, close-ups of skin are compared with the cracks and deficiencies in pavement and plants, a clear metaphor for how Abby needs to be more grounded and come down from her spiritual citadel of superiority.
These heavy-handed metaphors demonstrate a limited visual vocabulary and feel jarring against Touchy Feely’s otherwise stripped-back aesthetic. They also reveal a complete misunderstanding of the issues at hand. Approaching middle-class malaise without the slightest understanding of its roots, Shelton’s characters are determined to solve the world’s problems by being a little bit more ‘right-on’ or by finally accepting the love of a man. By not looking at the issue objectively, such as the oppressive class structure and the insatiable aspirational hunger fostered through a capitalist system, Shelton ignores the fact there’s a bigger force at hand here – something she ironically fails to communicate in this bland and incredibly pedestrian attempt to tap into American counter-culture.