Brendan (John Ruby) is a shy mechanic who thinks his dirty hands have led him to a loveless marriage with a hard-working attorney. He becomes a regular at a Vietnamese-run nail salon in the hopes of saving his relationship, but finds himself drawn to Tam (Porter Lynn), an awkward young manicurist with issues of her own.
The plot of Touch is the stuff of melodrama, and its unfortunately overpowering musical score makes it often play the way I imagine a Vietnamese soap opera would. The writing can be hackneyed and maudlin, the actors not always up to the range of dramatic action required of them. But despite flaws in almost every department, the film develops and reveals its characters in marvelous and powerful ways.
Scenes with Brendan and Tam make up the film’s central relationship, but the scenes with their other relationships are where the movie is most intimate, despite the sensual turn taken by the movie’s leads. Ruby and Lynn have an awkward chemistry that does not always work, but the difficult relationships that bring them to where they are, marked by both touch and the lack of it, seem more real. Melinda Bennett is a perfect disinterested wife, so much so that her own character development seems less convincing. Tam’s relationship with her disabled father (Long Nguyen) is a striking back-story for the manicurist’s own issues with touch.
The scenes with Tam’s father could have been powerful studies of elder care, but a terrible music score sullies them. The Hollywood tendency to fill silent space with music cues that remind you what you should be feeling have seeped into this independent production. The first feature of USC graduate Minh Duc Nguyen shows the director can evoke strong emotion through actors and framing without the need for music. Touch is a flawed debut, but it works despite its shortcomings, and I look forward to seeing more work from the director.