Natural Selection is one of those films whose premise is so ridiculous, you can’t help but feel nervous about it. There are only so many workable madcap absurdist indie films out there, so when I read the blurb in the SXSW guide about it, red flags immediately went up in my brain. But, I had a couple hours to kill so I figured, what the hell.
Smartest decision I made the entire festival. I love it when that happens.
Let’s begin with the story: Linda (Rachael Harris) is a sweet, if somewhat dim housewife in Texas married to Abe (John Diehl), who’s an even more devout Christian than her. In fact, he’s so devout that because Linda is barren, they don’t have sex. Ever. They apparently haven’t had sex in the entire 25 years of their marriage. Abe, however, has a secret outlet (so to speak) — he sneaks off to a sperm bank every week to, ah, donate. One day, in the midst of a particularly vigorous donation, he has a stroke, and as a result Linda learns his secret, and also learns that he has a son via the bank that he’s never met.
In the midst of a moral, personal and religious crisis, Linda takes off on a road trip to Florida to find her stepson in the hopes of bringing him back to meet Abe. The catch is, of course, that her stepson Raymond (Matt O’Leary, absolutely killing it in the role) is a washed-up junkie who recently escaped from prison and has the personal hygiene of a drunken hog. Linda, however, refuses to judge and blindly accepts him, practically forcing him to join her as they set off back to Texas.
That journey is of course both literal and metaphorical, as Linda and Raymond spend the trip getting into and out of jams, and slowly peeling back their respective layers, exposing their problems, hopes and dreams to each other as they grow to trust one another. The notion of trust is the film’s critical theme, and it’s examined in a singularly unusual fashion. Linda is the most trusting, adorably wholesome (if inadvertently hellaciously irritating) person you’ve ever met, and when the foundation of that trust is shattered and her world is ruptured by Abe’s transgressions, she’s reduced to an almost childlike state, where she slowly rediscovers all of the things she missed during her strange and sheltered marriage. Rachael Harris, looking so wildly different from her small role as Stu’s bitchy wife in The Hangover that she was almost unrecognizable, is fantastic in the role, combining that wide-eyed naiveté with a slowly growing understanding of the world around her, and exploring the future through a series of mistakes and discoveries.
Even more impressive is Matt O’Leary as Raymond, in a role that was simply goddamn incredible. Raymond is the most unlikeable, unrepentant, unpleasant son of a bitch I’ve seen on screen in a long time, and yet O’Leary gives a surprisingly subtle, nuanced and complex performance that ultimately makes the character sympathetic. Raymond’s a sniveling, self-loathing bum, but he’s got his reasons, and as they’re revealed, the character becomes far more interesting than anyone could have expected. Robbie Pickering, who wrote and directed the film, creates these strange, quirky characters who don’t fall into the conventional indie drama traps, and instead are believable parts whose intense and occasionally heartbreaking lives and motivations escalate to far more profound and engaging whole than I ever expected.
Natural Selection was, cinematically speaking, the best split-second decision I’ve ever made. It (rightfully so) won SXSW’s Best Narrative Feature Award, and it’s not hard to figure out why. It’s simultaneously hilarious, tragic, and exhilarating, with richly rendered characters that, despite its ludicrous-sounding story, is ultimately one of the more engrossing and entertaining films I’ve seen in a long time.
Natural Selection premiered at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.