By Betsy Sharkey, Tribune Newspapers critic
June 21, 2012
"Natural Selection," an intriguing and intelligent first effort from indie filmmaker Robbie Pickering, digs deep into the heart of Texas for its soulful tale of small-town saints and sinners and a road trip to redemption.
Laced with humor and regret, the film rests on a finely textured performance by Rachael Harris, a prolific character actress especially memorable as the harpy of a fiancee perpetually haranguing Ed Helms in "The Hangover." Here she's dialed it down to a bare whisper for the 40ish Linda White, whose quiet life of desperation is about to be dissected.
Linda lives in a nondescript house in a nondescript Houston suburb. She's barren, which is burden enough, but her conservative church only condones sex for procreation, which means she and husband Abe (John Diehl) do a whole lot of praying.
Repressed by her past, her husband and her religion, Linda's lifetime of anguish can be seen in the slump of her shoulders and every limp strand of that dishwater blond hair.
When Abe has a stroke, the secrets of a lifetime start spilling out — starting with the fact that he suffered the stroke at the local sperm bank where he'd apparently been making weekly donations for the duration of their 25-year marriage.
She's still reeling from that when Abe wakes from a coma long enough to ask for the 23-year-old biological son Linda never knew he had.
Thus begins her pilgrimage to find that son, to grant that final wish. Raymond (Matt O'Leary), product of one of Abe's weekly "gifts," is a druggie and a drifter hiding out in Tampa, Fla., just one step ahead of the law. From the moment Linda and Raymond encounter each other — a shouted conversation through the screen door of a shack — the movie really settles in.
O'Leary and Harris turn out to be perfect counterpoints. O'Leary uses his lean frame to create a wiry and wired raw nerve of a young loser. If Raymond represents untethered bad, Linda is deeply rooted goodness. In Harris' hands, Linda is guileless but believable, her smile so worn and wary that it almost hurts to see it.
The road trip back to Texas and the relationship that begins to develop between Raymond and Linda might have turned predictable with a less artful filmmaker. Thankfully, "Natural Selection" is anything but.
Yes, Linda is determined to get Raymond back home before Abe dies, and most certainly Raymond is out to con her. But they will both face many curves and crossroads, guided by the choices they make.
Pickering is most interested in exploring the notion of choice, the way any one decision can shut down a life or open it up. Though he does a good job of keeping everyone guessing whether things will turn out for the best, it's virtually impossible not to head into the final moments of "Natural Selection" with a lot of hope.
'Natural Selection' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, language, brief graphic nudity, a beating and some drug material)
Running time: 1:30
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