It’s worth checking out, if only to see one of the best performances of the year.
Robbie Pickering’s Natural Selection, which swept the SXSW film festival last year, is an assured debut feature for the most part. The story and odd couple pairing of its two leads might make the movie come off as a comedy on paper when it’s actually a slightly humorous look at two tragic characters. The way things play out is mostly clichéd, but it’s a testament to the film’s strengths that most of these clichés aren’t noticeable Natural Selection is a flawed film but it’s still a good one, mostly because of a brilliant lead performance that elevates the weaker material.
Linda (Rachael Harris) is a devout Christian whose husband Abe (John Diehl) refuses to have sex with her. Linda is unable to have any kids and, as an opening title card quoting the Bible explains, it’s a sin to spill one’s seed for reasons other than procreation. What Linda doesn’t know is that for the past two decades Abe has found a loophole for himself by regularly donating his sperm. It’s when Abe suffers a stroke at the sperm bank (while getting off to religious-themed porn, naturally) that the lifestyle Linda’s been barely able to hold together over the years falls apart. After hearing her comatose husband mutter something about wanting to meet one of his children, Linda travels to Florida to find his son Raymond (Matt O’Leary).
It turns out that Raymond is a drug addict on the run from the police so when Linda shows up at his door offering him a free trip out of town he gladly accepts. In no time Linda and Raymond are off and it’s not hard to guess how things will turn out. Linda, who’s more conservative, will slowly open up while Raymond, who can’t control his temper, will eventually calm down and show his nice side. As Raymond and Linda keep running into detours on their way to Abe, Linda’s brother-in-law Peter (Jon Gries) starts to look for her thinking she’s in some sort of danger.
Robbie Pickering and his cinematographer Steve Calitri make a lot of interesting choices throughout Natural Selection. There are plenty of striking compositions and interesting choices when it comes to setting scenes up that show some serious talent behind the camera. When Raymond and Linda have their first argument with each other the scene is done in a long shot with a nearby parade not only drowning their voices out but obscuring both of them in the frame. It’s a unique approach to a scene that other people might have milked the drama out of, but Pickering’s approach seems to highlight the irrelevance of their feud.
The writing might be Natural Selection’s weakest point. Other than Linda, everyone else feels like they’ve been written with broad strokes. The same can’t be said for Rachael Harris who is, simply put, a revelation in this film. Harris, who is mostly known from The Hangover and other comedic work, has been typecast over the years in roles as bitchy women. Seeing her as a kind-hearted Christian is a complete 180 from her previous work (even Pickering himself has admitted that he thought she was wrong for the part at first) but her performance is so good that at times it transcended some of the film’s limitations. Harris portrays Linda as a tragic but vulnerable person, going for a naturalistic performance rather than playing up the religious aspects of her role for laughs. It’s an incredible discovery and, in a just world, would be getting proper recognition during awards season.
Despite its shortcomings, Natural Selection is an enjoyable film. It establishes Robbie Pickering and Rachael Harris as two people to watch in the coming years. The two of them inject enough life into a familiar genre to make it feel fresh again. It’s worth checking out, if only to see one of the best performances of the year.