By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 19, 2011 at 3:12AM
At the closing-night party following the SXSW Film Festival awards ceremony Tuesday night, one filmmaker -- whose movie didn't win -- tossed back a Lone Star and sighed. "'Natural Selection' got snubbed," he groaned.
Of course, the opposite had happened: First-time writer-director Robbie Pickering's assured tale, in which a devout Christian woman tracks down her sperm-donating husband's criminal son, cleaned up shop.
Taking home both the audience and the jury prizes for the Narrative Feature Competition, "Natural Selection" also landed Breakthrough Performance notices for lead actors Rachael Harris and Matt O'Leary, in addition to Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Score. Those trophies, all awarded by a jury comprised of three people, make it pretty clear that nobody had trouble reaching a consensus.
If and when "Natural Selection" reaches theaters (no distributor yet), I can't say it will deserve the hype. Nonetheless, its awards serve a good purpose if the added exposure boosts Pickering's career. The movie has enough emotional complexity, compelling performances and visual inspiration to make the man behind it worthy of attention.
Before any story takes shape, Pickering begins "Natural Selection" with the sight of a jailed man bursting out of a manure bag in slo-mo, celebrating his freedom by yelling to the sky. The absurd image echoes a similarly daring prison escape in "Raising Arizona." While "Natural Selection" lacks the Coen Bros.' storytelling refinement, it has enough going on to suggest that Pickering can reach the same heights, which helps explain its runaway popularity over the past week in Austin.
The freed man turns out to be Raymond (O'Leary), a 23-year-old trainwreck. He becomes the reluctant companion for Linda (Harris), a barren woman who is more than a little annoyed after she learns that her husband Abe (John Diehl) has been an inveterate sperm donor -- something she discovers after he suffers a stroke while donating yet more of his seed. With Abe stuck in a coma, Linda feels compelled to head from suburban Houston to Tampa in search of the offspring the two could never have together.
Raymond initially resists Linda, who's all soft-spoken demeanor and conservative values. Finally, he agrees to accompany her back to Texas, possibly to avoid the police on his tail. At this point, "Natural Selection" settles into the mold of a roadtrip movie, the kind where dissimilar people go through a series of escapades and learn to get along. Despite its derivative nature, the story gains momentum when Linda begins questioning her motives and the series of life mistakes that established her unhappy existence. The movie suddenly clicks when an unlikely chemistry starts to develop between Linda and Raymond, primarily due to the effective contrast between its two engaging leads.
Although littered with narrative gaps and occasionally clumsy pacing, "Natural Selection" sustains an intimate feel by keeping the focus on Linda's desperate need to find her own happy equilibrium. The filmmaker wrote the movie when his stepfather was dying and clearly drew from personal experience (the inspiration for Linda, Pickering's mother, showed up for the Q&A at the screening I attended). This delicacy overpowers a series of dark twists and imbues the movie with a memorable core.
Writing about the decision to give "Natural Selection" all those awards, juror and New York magazine contributor Logan Hill explained that "it is hard not to love this film… that gives the emerging sperm-donor-comedy genre a dramatic new twist (dozens of twists, actually)." He also recalled fellow juror Roger Ebert's justification for the prizes: "He felt that one film most fully delivered on everything it aspired to be," Hill wrote, which sounds about right. Despite its flaws, "Natural Selection" succeeds as a crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking romp, a significant point given that it's also a directorial debut.
At the awards ceremony, no less than SXSW film producer Janet Pierson confessed that she doesn't think much of such accolades -- but acknowledged their practical importance, citing an industry veteran who once said that Oscars don't matter until you win one. Considering what "Natural Selection" says about Pickering's capacity as a director, the awards work as a form of advocacy.
Other narrative competition entries held less immediate potential. The trim genre exercise "96 Minutes" and the disquieting war veteran story "Happy New Year" are efficiently made, but otherwise not particularly noteworthy. In "Charlie Casanova," a symbolically charged parable in which the eponymous Irish madman constantly talks smack about the middle class, director Terry McMahon displays a daring experimental approach that many SXSW viewers probably had little patience for. (Variety's critic was hugely dismissive; I found it harder to like than appreciate, but it still made me queasy.) Compared to these options, Pickering's feature played to diverse moviegoers and kept them happy with its sweepingly gorgeous finale. The awards guarantee that Pickering has more to offer.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Unlikely to find a mass audience due to no stars and the possibility of mixed reviews, "Natural Selection" will probably wind up with a mid-sized distributor and reach its biggest viewership on VOD. Stay tuned, however, for more from up-and-comer Pickering. The movie firmly puts him on the map.
criticWIRE grade: B+