Natural Selection

An engagingly offbeat comedy that respects its characters too much to push too hard for easy laugh.

Raymond - Matt O'Leary
Linda - Rachael Harris
Abe - John Diehl
Sheila - Gayland Williams
Peter - Jon Gries

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.

Natural Selection

Production: A Best Medicine Prods. production. Produced by Brion Hambel, Paul Jensen. Executive producers, Charlie Mason, Justin Moore-Lewy. Co-producers, Nicole Ettinger, Sunday Boling, Meg Norman. Directed, written by Robbie Pickering.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Steven Capitano Calitri; editor, Michelle Tesoro; music, iZler, Curt Schneider; music supervisor, Justin Gage; production designer, Michael Bricker; art director, Kate Morter; costume designers, Colin Wilkes, Jennifer Beck; sound, Sean McCormick; associate producers, Sheila Tamble, Jon Watts, Jake Schreier; assistant director, Aaron Walters; casting, Sunday Boling, Meg Norman. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 14, 2011. Running time: 89 MIN.

Cast: Raymond - Matt O'Leary
Linda - Rachael Harris
Abe - John Diehl
Sheila - Gayland Williams
Peter - Jon Gries

More Scene

  • Angler Los Angeles

    Angler Is L.A.'s Major New Seafood Destination

    San Francisco transplant Angler is set to make a major splash in Los Angeles, as Joshua Skenes’ innovative seafood-focused restaurant opens in the somewhat unlikely location of the Beverly Center. Angler is the latest and the most ambitious restaurant to join a fresh crop of spots, including Cal Mare and Yardbird, on the recently refurbished [...]

  • Bette Midler

    Bette Midler Set for Special Performance at New York Pride (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bette Midler is set to appear at New York’s Pride Main Event this Saturday (June 29) at the Javits Center. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, she’ll perform a song accompanied by composer Marc Shaiman, of “Hairspray” and “Mary Poppins Returns” fame. Her stage time is set for 11 p.m. Also scheduled to [...]

  • Magic Johnson, Larry Bird

    Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Robin Roberts Honored at 2019 NBA Awards

    The NBA went Hollywood on Monday night, mixing basketball legends with a star-studded list of presenters including Samuel L. Jackson, Tiffany Haddish and “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley at the 2019 NBA Awards. Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal hosted the third annual award show, which aired live on TNT, kicking things off with a surprise [...]

  • Naomi Watts and Gretchen Carlson'The Loudest

    ‘The Loudest Voice’ Stars Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe Talk Roger Ailes

    Roger Ailes may have been the force behind the creation of Fox News, but the late newsman’s legacy will forever be his atrocious sexual harassment of several of the network’s female anchors and producers. Showtime premiered its new limited series “The Loudest Voice,” which chronicles Ailes’ rise and fall, on Monday night at the Paris [...]

  • Billy Eichner Power of Pride Variety

    Billy Eichner on Taylor Swift's 'Calm Down' Backlash

    When Taylor Swift released her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, it seemed like every member of the LGBTQ in Hollywood was included — except for Billy Eichner. “I’m still not gay enough for Taylor Swift — or too gay — I don’t know what it is,” Eichner joked at Variety’s Power of Pride [...]

  • Bebe Rexha

    Mumford and Sons, Sting, Ciara, Bebe Rexha Light Up Cannes Lions

    There was no shortage of excellent music at the 2019 edition of Cannes Lion. The international gathering of creatives drew top music brands – among them: Spotify, Live Nation, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM/Pandora, VEVO and Universal Music Group – and a slew of well-known acts to stages across the Croissette, to villas above the city and onto [...]

  • Patrick Wilson

    Patrick Wilson, Mckenna Grace on Scary Stories From 'Annabelle Comes Home' Set

    Tales of spooky occurrences on the sets of horror movies like “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist” have circulated for years, and it looks like “The Conjuring” franchise is following in their footsteps in that regard. The cast of “Annabelle Comes Home” shared their unnerving stories from set at the film’s premiere on Thursday night at the Regency [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content