Like most folks who attended the last screening of Natural Selection, I was catching the film mostly due to its winning both the audience and jury awards at SXSW. I hadn’t heard of it either, but then there were a ton of films on the venue, and I stuck to the ones I probably wouldn’t get screening invites to later (read “documentaries”).
So the hype for Natural Selection was ample, foremost among its champions was/is my Chicago colleague, the great Roger Ebert. And I can see why: It’s a tender, sweet story, the performances are terrific, and it’s all-around original, funny, and (forgive the use of this word) fresh.
Rachel Harris (whose eclectic credits range from The Hangover to Stuart Little 2 to SeaQuest DSV) plays the infertile, sexually frustrated, and very Christian housewife Linda White. Since she can’t produce a child and since she and her husband Abe Abe (John Diel) are such dedicated Christians, the two haven’t had sex in about a quarter of a century.
Abe finds a loophole in the only-sex-for-procreation by making weekly donations to the local sperm bank, something Linda is unaware of (as it would only compound her frustration at not being able to likewise relieve herself) until Abe suffers a stroke during one session and subsequently reveals to her that years ago one of his donations grew into a 23-year-old son Raymond (Matt O’Leary). He tasks Linda with tracking down Raymond so he can see the lad before he dies, and, like the dutiful wife she is, Linda accepts.
However, Raymond is the polar opposite of Linda—blasphemous, crooked, and, as the opening scene discloses, a fugitive. At first he resists her request, but after spying the opportunity to run some sort of grift on this gullible, overly patient woman, he accepts.
And the trip home changes them forever.
That’s not a dig, I just don’t want to spoil the surprises of their, yes, journey, because Natural Selection, despite my synopsis making it sound like prime Oscar-bait, takes some very unexpected steps that elevate it from the realm of The King’s Speech (a movie that’s very good but too formulaic to be “really damn good”) to really-damn-good-hood.
Foremost among its strengths is Harris, who is just wonderful. Everyone has met or can recall a human being whose passion for life has burned out and buried themselves into the comfortable reliability of routine or ceded their drive to a what they see as a higher power, such as religion. Complacency, as a character trait, cannot be an easy thing to convey—it’s too subtle—nor is it simple to denote frustration and fawning coming from the same person without looking cartoonish, and to wrangle out a further suppressed sexuality is quite a feat indeed.
The makeup and costume departments do an extraordinary job of visually encapsulating the character, but Harris, from the moment she’s introduced, embodies the role so effortlessly that it’s unsettling—doubly so when you realize that she was the previously the bitchy girlfriend of Ed Harris’s character in The Hangover. It makes her character arc all the more impressive, too.
O’Leary is a good counterpoint, not only to the conservative Linda, but also as a clearer reflection of his father’s sins, hidden behind the veil of false penitence. But the part isn’t written as simply a foil so much as the lost man Linda fell in love with. He’s played for humor, yes, but greater emphasis is placed on how he reawakens Linda’s dormant spirit. And writing that just now, I think I understand the Christ imagery the movie goes out of its way to apply to Raymond—is it heavy handed if the message isn’t entirely clear? Oh well.
That said, I really liked it, but I didn’t love Natural Selection, at least in the sense that I plan on rewatching it furiously once the DVD’s available. I appreciate the skill and even embrace it, but I think the film’s intended for someone who’s not at my point in life (and possibly gender). That’s not exactly a criticism more than it is an explanation as to why it didn’t resonate with me. Still, while I can sit back and admire it for now, I suspect it to weigh heavily several years down the road.