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Hit and Myth: Touchy Feely

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The psychic toll of healing others is explored in Touchy Feely, written and directed by Lynn Shelton. Two leading characters in the film embody aspects of "the Wounded Healer." Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Shelton's latest Seattle-based film features Abby (Rosemary DeWitt), a massage therapist, and her introverted brother, dentist Paul (Josh Pais). They embark on separate but related arcs that reveal internal struggles for healers today.

Abby has a thriving massage practice, is friendly with her wise Reiki master Bronwyn (Alison Janney), and has a supportive cyclist-shop boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). The lease is up on her apartment. But after Jesse asks Abby to move in with him, she suddenly becomes repulsed by the touch of her clients' skin -- which, in this film, is Abby's unique version of getting "cold feet" related to commitment. Unnerved, Abby cancels all of her appointments, and instead of living with Jesse, moves in with her brother and college-age niece Jenny (Ellen Page).

Paul has a flagging dental practice where his daughter works as his assistant. Jenny worries about her father's lack of patients, and offers to give the gifted Henry (Tomo Nakayama) a free teeth cleaning, since there are no patients around. Somehow, Paul magically cures Henry of a longtime jaw issue. Word of mouth spreads and suddenly Paul has a booming business as a healer-dentist who can tackle Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction. Jenny, who has put her own university ambitions on hold in order to help her father, is pleased and surprised by her father's newfound success and ability.

Abby's skin repulsion leads her to a sort of underworld exploration of her past and of the world around her. Paul, challenged by an angry former patient who accuses him of fraud, also spirals downward.

Those who expect the film to be a light comedy about zany healers miss the point. The film tracks the ebb and flow of energy and psyche, and highlights an exploration of the shadow side of healing needed in order to re-balance and grow. In Abby's case, her ability to heal others is impacted by her fear of a romantic commitment. Paul is only able to maintain his "superstar healer" stature briefly before he, too, feels his energies wane. His relationship with Bronwyn underscores this as a leitmotif; he learns, in baby steps, about the power of his mysterious touch - can he control it? If not, what does it mean? The title references the link between the sense of touch and powerful emotion but it's also about "touching" as in true connection.

In Re-Visioning Psychology, James Hillman writes of: "the archetypal figure of the Wounded Healer, another ancient and psychological way of expressing that the illness and the healer are one and the same" (76). This relates to Abby and Paul's twinned pathways, although Abby starts "healthy" and becomes depressed, while Paul has absence, then fullness, and seeks balance. His practice peaks and ebbs, reflecting his journey. In the essay "Puer Wounds and Ulysses' Scar" in Senex and Puer, Hillman explains that the act of healing is not "because one is whole, integrated, and all together, but from a consciousness breaking through dismemberment" (234). This film depicts a family at this key psychic juncture.

Looking at Touchy Feely through the prism of the Wounded Healer, Lynn Shelton's film has important points to make about health, family, and tending psychic wounds. Although the final dinner scene may seem unearned to some, the ending doesn't discount the utter messiness and pain of their collective process but highlights the family's core of love.