'Natural Selection': Film Review

Courtesy ITN Distribution
A lifeless drama exploiting the threat of a high school mass shooting.

The new kid in school is befriended by a teen on the brink of violence.

To the long list of perils one faces being a high school student — including bullying, cafeteria isolation, romantic rejection — there has of course been one item added in recent years: the possibility of being caught in a campus shooting. Chad Scheifele's Natural Selection offers a corollary: that a teen facing enough of those other dangers risks not just being caught in but a perpetrator of such violence. Failing to live up to the itchy possibilities of that premise, this debut feature (based on Scheifele's 2009 short of the same name) plays like a glum after-school special whose jealousies and painful secrets project little heat. Theatrical prospects are poor, and, with supporting player Anthony Michael Hall the most familiar name in the cast, its appeal on video is not much stronger.

Mason Dye, looking most of the time like an abused puppy, plays Tyler, who has just moved to a new town with his single mom. They're running from some trauma — flashbacks of marital discord play like TV ads for migraine remedies — and she copes worse than he does: Tyler is growing increasingly judgmental of her inability to get a good job and to stay away from whiskey.

Tyler is befriended by a pretty girl on his first day — Paige (Katherine McNamara) shows him around campus and practically puts her number into his phone with a contact labeled "your new girlfriend" — but mysteriously, this does little for the boy's spirits. Interactions with some thuggy jocks make him very receptive to the welcoming gestures of Indrid (Ryan Munzert), a Nietszche-reading misanthrope who keeps hinting at the "bad day" that is coming for all the mouth-breathers around him.

We're never sure what Indrid sees in Ty, but he becomes possessive of him, sabotaging Ty's nascent romance with Paige and trying to make him feel more isolated than he is. Scheifele has shown us Indrid's gun cabinet and given us more than enough clues to his intentions; we can only conclude that Indrid would prefer to have a partner on his day of terror than to kill his classmates alone.

Munzert tries hard in this thin role, but the cast in general looks too bored to justify Indrid's rage. The movie does keep us wondering which direction Tyler will go, but when the critical moment arrives, its attempt at clever misdirection plays like a nonsensical cheat.

Production company: Modoc Spring
Cast: Mason Dye, Ryan Munzert, Katherine McNamara, Anthony Michael Hall
Director-screenwriter-executive producer: Chad Scheifele
Producers: Mary Jo Barthmaier, Stuart Connelly, Pam Landis
Director of photography: Brandon Ripley
Production designer: Eileen Dennehy
Costume designer: Rita Squitiere
Editor: Ray Chung
Casting director: Caroline Sinclair

Not rated, 100 minutes