Natural Selection opens with a birth, of sorts, and ends with another. Kind of.
A landscaper is working the grounds outside a prison, but when he takes a break and walks away from his riding lawnmower the clippings bag begins to move. A seam rips open and out pours a scrawny, filthy, mulleted man clearly thrilled to have escaped from jail.
A few states away Linda (Rachael Harris) and her husband Abe (John Diehl) are waking in bed. She makes moves of a seductive nature, but he shuts her down with a reminder that God would not approve. She’s barren and unable to conceive, and God only approves of fornication in the service of procreation. It’s a struggle that she accepts without complaint, but when Abe suffers an ironic stroke that puts him in a coma while “donating” at a sperm bank she discovers he’s been doing so since they were married over twenty years ago. Double standard? Maybe, but when she’s informed he has a son named Raymond she sets off to find the young man and unite them before Abe passes.
The bulk of the film follows this odd couple on a road trip back to Abe, and it should come as no surprise that these two polar opposites discover truths about themselves along the way. (It is an indie comedy after all.) Linda is someone with an unavoidably positive outlook on life who refuses to see the bad in someone when she can highlight the good, even if that means making up the good. Raymond knows only the bad, and while he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer he knows enough to always take care of himself first.
She’s a God-fearing woman who hasn’t had sex in twenty-five years, who’s unable to have children of her own and who believes she can make Raymond into a better man. He’s a dishonorable, drug addicted thief who only agreed to join her as a way to avoid the police. Can her faith in him get them all the way back to Abe in one piece?
Writer/director Robbie Pickering does a fine job introducing the characters and their respective worlds, and he does so with good and frequent humor mixed with moments of emotional honesty. We see Linda’s situation, but her optimism and bright-eyed attitude prevents us from feeling pity for her. The dim-witted Raymond is a tool of epic proportions, but he manages to charm as only an unintentional idiot can.
O’Leary is quite good at balancing his early cruelties with his later softness, and the fact that he’s so likeable is a testament to the actor’s skills. Raymond is not a nice guy, but as his layers are pulled back a sympathetic and affecting character is revealed within. The remainder of the cast, including John Diehl and Jon Gries, also do solid work.
But the heart of the film is Harris, recognizable from years of character work, who finally gets a chance at a lead role. She’s a revelation with a performance that invites sympathy and love even as the character makes frustrating, irritating, head-shaking decisions. An early example with Linda staying at a hotel sees her calling the front desk under the guise of asking for a wake-up call, but it’s actually an act of a lonely woman. She just wants to chat with someone, anyone, before bed, and Harris perfectly sells the desperation that Linda buries beneath her kindness.
Natural Selection is a sad and funny film about discovering who you really are and then trusting yourself to do something about it. The tone wavers a bit, particularly in the third act where the movie forgets it’s supposed to be a comedy, but it recovers with an honest and warm ending for its characters.
The Upside: Rachael Harris gives a funny, sweet and raw performance; Matt O’Leary makes a despicable man likeable; soundtrack and score; script occasionally surprises.
The Downside: Third act forgets this is a comedy; not very kind toward fundamentalist Christians.
On the Side: Natural Selection won several awards at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival including Best Narrative Feature, Breakthrough Performance for both Harris and O’Leary, and the Audience Award.