Winner of both the jury and audience awards for narrative feature at the SXSW Film Festival, “Natural Selection” is an engagingly offbeat comedy that respects its characters too much to push too hard for easy laughs, even when those characters risk making complete fools of themselves. Indeed, once first-time feature filmmaker Robbie Pickering gets past a bumpy stretch of tonally dissonant expositional scenes, this filmed-in-Texas road movie finds a smooth groove between self-conscious quirkiness and broadly played farce. Theatrical prospects are iffy, but pic could connect with simpatico viewers on VOD and homevid.
A perfectly cast Rachael Harris gives a career-breakthrough performance as Linda White, a long-married Christian housewife in the Houston suburb of Jersey Village. Because Linda was diagnosed years ago as barren, Abe (John Diehl), her fanatically devout husband, has always refused to have conjugal relations with her. His reasoning: Fornication without the possibility of impregnation is a sin.
Given Abe’s strict religious convictions, Linda is deeply shocked — and more than a bit angry — when she discovers, shortly after he suffers a debilitating stroke, that her husband has been making regular donations to a sperm bank for more than 20 years, and that he suffered his stroke during the course of his most recent, ahem, deposit.
But Linda remains a dutiful wife, figuring that, if Abe truly is knocking on heaven’s door, he should see some return on his investment. So she drives off to Tampa, hoping to track down one of Abe’s biological offspring. What she’s hoping for is a miracle. What she gets is Raymond (Matt O’Leary), a grimy, cranky, mullet-coiffed ne’er-do-well who agrees to accompany Linda back to Texas only because he’s being hunted by cops after his unauthorized departure from prison.
It takes a while for these opposites to attract, or least engage in something like friendly conversation. Linda, unaffectedly chipper and empathetic, tries her best to remain nonjudgmental even when repeatedly confronted with evidence of Raymond’s criminal tendencies and antisocial behavior. (A nice touch: Her good intentions, obviously informed by her sincere Christian beliefs, never come off as anything less than admirable.) Still, Raymond refuses to warm to his traveling companion — at least, not at first.
A sizable swath of “Natural Selection” is devoted to a long-distance journey through familiar territory. But while Pickering doesn’t avoid every predictable turn in the road, he takes a few amusing detours along the way, and provides his aud with two traveling companions who brighten the journey with their sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartfelt give-and-take.
O’Leary is very good at conveying Raymond’s astonishment at discovering his own capacity for decency, responding much like someone who discovers long-forgotten money in the pocket in a seldom-worn coat. In tandem with Harris, he’s also subtly deft at keeping the aud off balance by suggesting that what begins as a mother-son relationship might develop into something quite different.
The two leads (who copped acting awards at SXSW) are at their best during a latenight scene in a restaurant where they really shouldn’t be, talking about things they didn’t expect to share. Here and elsewhere, Harris is deeply affecting as she plumbs the depths of guilt and longing that have defined (and limited) Linda for much too long. If the right people see “Natural Selection,” movie auds and TV viewers should be seeing more of Harris in similarly challenging roles.
It’s a credit to Diehl’s ability as an actor, and Pickering’s generosity of spirit as a storyteller, that Abe ultimately comes off as something more complex than a dogmatic control freak. “Natural Selection” might have worked even better if Pickering had extended his generosity to provide as much depth for two other key supporting characters: Sheila (Gayland Williams), Linda’s snippy sister, and Peter (Jon Gries), Sheila’s minister husband.
Shot mostly in and around Smithville, a Texas town near Austin, pic boasts production values that indicate the savvy expenditure of limited resources.