Review: ‘Natural Selection’ Surprises and Charms in More Ways Than One On Its Odd Couple Road Trip Journey

Review: 'Natural Selection' Surprises and Charms in More Ways Than One On Its Odd Couple Road Trip Journey
Review: 'Natural Selection' Surprises and Charms More Ways Than One On Its Odd Couple Road Trip Journey
Natural Selection” swept the jury awards at SXSW 2011, and has been generally hailed especially for Rachael Harris‘ performance, a dramatic turn from a well-established comedienne. The feature debut from writer/director Robbie Pickering, the film stars Harris as mousey Texas housewife Lindy who has been denied sex by her husband Abe (John Diehl) for 25 years because their religion forbids copulation without the express purpose of procreation, and wouldn’t you know it, Lindy can’t have any “special babies.” Abe fulfills his needs secretly, at the local sperm bank, which Lindy doesn’t discover until he keels over from a stroke, mid-jerk. With her entire world hanging in the balance, Lindy sets off on a road trip to find one of Abe’s offspring to bring him back at the behest of her husband’s dying wish (or so she thinks… or imagines), armed with only a name (Raymond), city and her trusty hatchback. 
At Raymond’s house, Lindy discovers a bearded, paranoid, cracked out young man (Matt O’Leary) who gladly takes her bribe but kicks her out when he thinks she wants to talk Jesus. Of course when the fuzz comes calling, he’s more than willing to take her up on the offer to meet dad, and the two set off on their odd couple road trip, encountering all sorts of adventures and obstacles in their way, including Lindy’s deeply delusional pastor brother-in-law Peter (Jon Gries) who sets off in pursuit of Lindy. It’s a quirky, dark little movie, with charming turns by the two leads. It’s not surprising it ruled SXSW; it’s tailor-made for the festival with its road movie premise, quirky mismatched protagonists and weird sexual thematics. 

Where the film succeeds is in its lean, mean, efficient and unpredictable storytelling, an “I don’t drink” set-up skips the convincing and gets straight to Lindy already blitzed on Patron shots, hopping on the bed. The small pieces of information that are parceled out aren’t overly forced, but you know that when the camera barely grazes Lindy’s stuffed money belt, that proverbial Chekov’s shotgun is going to go off, and soon. Dealing with issues around love, sex, partnership, parenting and one’s own life journey, it would be very easy to rely on sentimentality and force the ideas that the film is trying to get across, but this choice to avoid the obvious moments and dwell in some of the smaller, more intimate ones, where Lindy and Raymond get to know each other, is one that keeps the film surprising, unpredictable and light on its feet. 

Rachael Harris has been hailed for her performance, and yes, it’s ironic to tout this as a “breakout role” for a 20-year vet of the industry, who has long been slogging it out in commercials, sitcoms, and supporting roles. This role is drastically different than, say, Ed Helms’ shrew of a girlfriend in “The Hangover,” and it’s Harris’ turn to prove herself as an emotional lead and legitimate dramatic actress. She gives a fine turn in the film, though at first her performance, around its edges, reveals a bit of that affected quality that many comedians fall prey to in dramatic performances: a downturn of the mouth that verges on exagerration, an accent that’s almost too on the nose. It felt like Harris was performing, and not disappearing into the role. But as Lindy becomes more sure of her own self, making her own choices and finding relief in her new freedom, the performative aspects melt away; Harris revealing that Lindy herself was performing her old persona and it just didn’t quite fit right. 

Though, for any quibbles with Harris, she truly shoulders a heavy load in carrying a gritty little road movie that expertly plays with some huge issues and concepts. Her performance excels in her relationship with Raymond, when, as she tends to his wounds, the viewer can plainly see that she is dying to mother something, anything, even this bloody meth head on the run from the law. Somehow, the film manages to balance her maternal and sexual urges toward Raymond along the delicate edge of an Oedipal knife, without it ever really turning over to the creepy side. Matt O’Leary is compelling as her counterpart in the wild Raymond. Despite the character’s impulsive tendencies, he lets his humanity and heart shine through. 

The film has a few finely plotted twists and turns, and the audience never knows what’s coming next, so it feels at once familiar and and completely new. It wraps up with one of the most satisfying endings of an indie film in years: it is both ambiguous and decidedly not so. “Natural Selection” ends up being immensely heartwarming and a fine debut from a new director, with a performance from a familiar face that will surprise in more ways than one. [B+]

“Natural Selection” opens up this weekend in Los Angeles, May 18.

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