Natural Selection: Movie Review

Natural Selection film still
Modest road-film comedy goes to extremes to liberate its middle-aged heroine from an ultra-conservative household.

Writer-director Robbie Pickering's comedy won top honors at SXSW for its refreshing portrayal of a Christian woman, played by Rachael Harris, who embarks on a road trip with her extremely conservative husband's rebellious, out-of-wedlock son.

AUSTIN -- A purposely hyperbolic vision of escape for a character shackled by marital and religious constraints, Natural Selection trades some emotional engagement for laughs without rendering its heroine's crisis uninvolving. Its distance from realism and deliberately flat, Middle-America production values may limit theatrical potential, but a landslide of awards here at South by Southwest -- it won not only the jury and audience trophies for best narrative, but two acting awards and nods for screenplay, editing, and score -- can't hurt prospects for this debut feature by writer-director Robbie Pickering.

Made up to look very plain, Rachael Harris plays Linda White, a middle-aged Christian married to a man (John Diehl) so conservative he believes her infertility means they should never have sex. While she lacks an outlet for her carnal needs, he has secretly been visiting a sperm bank for decades, watching comically Bible-based porn ("it's time for the meek to inherit the girth!") while he attempts, indirectly, to do his procreational duty.

When her husband suffers a stroke mid-donation, Linda learns not only of his secret sexual habit but also of an adult son it has produced. She drives cross-country to find the kid, Raymond (Matt O'Leary), initiating an odd-couple road trip that will clearly not result in a happy new nuclear family.

Raymond's sordid life is established bluntly by O'Leary and the filmmaker as an existence of drugs, criminal pursuits and aggressive profanity. Endearingly, Linda remains undaunted by the man's ungodliness, ignoring his comments about "that Jesus shit" and guilelessly missing his obvious intent to use her money and car to escape the cops.

Viewers may have a harder time, though, believing the extent to which Linda goes along with Raymond once his hijinks have stranded them with neither car nor cash. A woman who has faithfully endured 25 sexless years would, one imagines, not be so quick to lie, trespass and steal to get by -- much less to succumb to the more sticky temptations that eventually earn her scorn from the pastor brother-in-law (Jon Gries) who has always coveted her and is trailing the pair on the road.

As cartoonish as much of this is, Pickering's story is refreshing in its refusal to paint all Christians with the same brush and its acknowledgement that a woman's escape from one dominating man doesn't require the immediate substitution of another guy -- even if a bit of deus ex machina at the end does tie the just-liberated woman to a new kind of relationship.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Narrative Competition section
Production Company: Best Medicine Productions
Cast: Rachael Harris, Matt O'Leary, John Diehl, Jon Gries, Gayland Williams, Stephanie King
Director-screenwriter: Robbie Pickering
Producers: Brion Hambel, Paul Jensen
Executive producers: Charlie Mason, Justin Moore-Lewy
Director of photography: Steven Capitano Calitri
Production designer: Michael Bricker
Music: iZLER, Curt Schneider
Costume designers: Colin Wilkes, Jennifer Beck
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
Sales: ICM, Traction Media
No rating, 90 minutes