Please Note: The images used here are stills provided by Cinema Guild, and not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.
Robbie Pickering's Natural Selection is a strange sort of anomaly, which is both a compliment and a criticism. It belongs to that school of independent American movie -- ranging from Sling Blade to Napoleon Dynamite to Junebug (a peak of the movement) and beyond -- that proudly features marginalized and/or ordinary characters, the kind of film that previously, sometime in the golden indie age of the 1990s, might have seemed a bit too ubiquitous and now, with the splintering and diminution of distribution available to filmmakers with a personal, passion-fueled vision like Pickering's, seems like an endangered species. There's thus something almost quaint, nearly nostalgic about the sometimes overly familiar rhythms and stratagems Pickering employs in telling his "quirky" story with its complicated but sympathetic characters and eccentric circumstances. On the one hand, there's a fresh-faced, earnest, thoughtful quality to the best parts of Natural Selection, in which Pickering's clear care for these people and what they're going through shines through and highlights the value of this approach to filmmaking. On the other, however, we're reminded that some of the stylistic ingredients that have come to be too-easy signifiers of a film's quirky spirit have grown awfully stale and would probably best be left on the shelf.
The story Pickering has to tell is certainly intriguing: An evangelical couple, Abe and Linda (John Diehl and Rachael Harris), who've lived all their lives sheltered in a small Southern town, have an unsatisfying sex life due to Abe's Biblical-literalist belief that partaking of the pleasures of physical intimacy with his wife would be a sin; she's incapable of becoming pregnant, and seed that doesn't bear fruit is, according to Abe, wasted in the eyes of God. The concordantly faithful Rachael is wracked with guilt and can't bring herself to be more insistent that her physical needs be met. When the fact that John has been spilling his seed on the side at a fertility clinic -- "cheating" on her by donating sperm in a fluorescent-lit chamber with cheesy porno movies and a little plastic cup -- comes to Linda's attention after her husband experiences a debilitating heart attack while making one of his sperm-bank deposits, she parlays her rage over years of feeling untouched and unwanted (for what, it turns out, was no good reason at all) into a mission to find a child (now grown) that her husband has impersonally fathered, so that in some way she can bring him what she has never been able to give him herself before he dies. Her road trip to fetch the late-twentysomething Raymond (Matt O'Leary), the unsuspecting, drug-addicted wastrel offspring whom we've seen performing a crudely ingenious prison break under the opening credits, becomes a journey of self-discovery. Yes, it's a formula -- the road trip to find oneself, the odd couple comprised of the meth-taking, wild-eyed, bedraggled, foul-mouthed Raymond and the Christian contemporary music-listening, self-effacing, quiet and dependent but yearning-for-freedom Linda. But there's enough subtlety and real, astute observation on Pickering's part as he depicts the journey from lost to less-lost of this young, too-wild man and too-good middle-aged woman that the film launches away from the formula and, at its best, lets us engage with and be moved by two well-drawn individuals. We never entirely lose sight of the fact that the core of Natural Selection, the heart that doesn't stop beating even when the story or the filmmaking stumble, is Linda -- lovingly played in a revelatory performance by a highly skilled and intuitive actress who's obviously explored all of her emotional contours -- and her subtle but ultimately definitive, happy escape from an oppression of which she's almost too-belatedly become aware.
Unfortunately, Pickering is spotty about being as aware as he should be of the hand he holds, or knowing how to play it, which causes some major misfires. There are too many distractions from Linda and Raymond's moving, unlikely, sweet and sad experience of helping each other -- too-slick Big Moments that don't fit, a certain metronomic dramatic predictability, and a loss of focus through an overabundance of characters trying to make the film more ensemble-y and expansive than it needs to be. The comic-relief bits with the hypocritical brother-in-law/pastor (John Gries) who's obviously long had a thing for Linda are poorly matched to the tone of the rest of film, so his zany, violent crusade to "rescue" his sister-in-law seems like repeated intrusions from some other, much less interesting slapstick movie, while the richer sibling-rivalry territory between Linda and her sister, Sheila (Gayland Williams), is opened up but then just left fallow, apparently forgotten about by the film's conclusion. Many of the big revelations between Raymond and Linda come both somewhat clumsily (too much expository dialogue) and right on cue, as if out of some screenwriting handbook, with a lack of spontaneity quite at odds with what feels like Pickering and company's intention of making Natural Selection a naturalistic picture. Even more detrimental are the blatantly big-drama moments heavily scored-over with pretty but unnecessary indie-pop music. Pickering and cinematographer Steve Calitri (working with the RED high-definition digital video camera) do create some lovely visual moments, such as the image of Linda in a hotel room, going to bed alone for the first time in her adult life, with the reflection of streetlights or moonlight through the window making a crosshatch pattern that looms on the wall above her. But those moments are the subtler ones, and the movie would've been better off had it hewn closer to that subtle approach and avoided so many forays into bombast: While the sequences that forcibly call the most attention to themselves in this way are well-executed, they're derivative, typical, and hamfisted in their conception, with slo-mo and triumphant music sapping the film's latent emotional power instead of enhancing it.
Still, Natural Selection doesn't entirely shut down or lose you completely at any point, and that's thanks to one flat-out masterstroke on Pickering's part when it comes to the casting, a less-showy but absolutely bedrock component of any director's job at which this auteur has acquitted himself well here, choosing very wisely in particular when it comes to his two leads. O'Leary and, especially, Harris (who's in practically every scene) are captivating, both in themselves as they inhabit their characters and in the chemistry they have together, rescuing the film from at least some of its obviousness and always providing something compensatory on the other side of any tiresome, self-indulgent, or over-stylized stretches. I'm not a big believer in the idea that a fine performance by an excellent actor can redeem a bad film, but what happens in Natural Selection is something sort of like that, with the major caveat that it's not actually a bad film waiting for redemption. Rather, it's an inspired idea, a well worthwhile story, that's hasn't been honed quite well enough and is buried under too much rote, gratuitous stylistic stuff; it's the incompletely-baked work of a bright, impassioned, but not yet fully-developed creative voice. Thank goodness its maker found performers that could meet what is good in the story halfway and run with it; Natural Selection is about as uneven as a movie can be and still get away with it, but these brilliant actors absorb every bump in the road and remind us, repeatedly and continuously, why we got on board this ride in the first place.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Natural Selection was shot on the RED high-definition digital camera (the same "film-like" camera whose use Steven Soderbergh pioneered for Che and that has become something like the go-to digital platform for filmmakers), and its properties of sharpness, clarity, and vividness are both well-utilized in the film and, as seems to be usual for digital shooting media, makes the transition to digital home-video media with ease -- the widescreen (2.35:1) presentation here via an AVC/MPEG-4, 1080p transfer, looks great without fail, with solid, consistent, vibrant colors, darks, and skin tones, no edge enhancement, and no aliasing to speak of.
The film's sound is conveyed via a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that captures all of Natural Selection's dialogue, music, and sound effects with a depth, clarity, and sonorousness (with sound that really does surround if that's how you're listening to it) that does more than its part to immerse you in the film's world.
--An assortment of brief cast and crew interviews -- friendly, fairly candid but clearly promotional sit-down Q&As with writer/director Robbie Pickering, his co-producers, and stars Matt O'Leary and Rachael Harris.
--The film's theatrical trailer along with a number of trailers for other Cinema Guild titles.
An intriguing, sometimes endearingly wobbly, sometimes just shaky first feature, Robbie Pickering's Natural Selection ultimately bites off more than it can chew. There is nevertheless a through-line of sensitivity toward the characters, sharp yet good-natured humor, and enthusiastic try-anything in the filmmaking that keep it afloat, even when Pickering seems to be digging too deep into a grab-bag of music-heavy indie-film aesthetics to dress up a story that veers intermittently off its track, here toward prescribed, predictable screenwriting-101 dramatic structure, there toward an overextended, overstuffed quality that can feel contrived or spread too thin. What really elevates and saves the film from being just another interesting, half-baked American independent film, though, is the lead performances: Matt O'Leary clearly understands the balance between the comic and the pathetic in his character, and he turns in a performance of physical and emotional adeptness that's a pleasure to watch. Rachael Harris, for her part, has a face you'll recognize from the dozens of fine character performances she's turned in on TV and in films, and here, as often seems to be the case, the skill an actor picks up over multiple "small" parts has left leaves her supremely well-equipped to realize the character upon whom the film depends, leaving us always with a reliable bedrock of emotional investment even when the film seems unfocused or wanders too far from its core. Natural Selection has many imperfections, from its beginner's overreliance on safety-net conventions in the writing to an occasional overly bombastic, overcompensating slickness in its style. But even considering all that, it works, surviving as a flawed gem whose unique sparkle is discernible and distinctive amid the overcrowded indie-movie heap -- one you want to hold up to the light and examine for its joyous glints of well-conceived, beautifully created characters and its promising glimmers of a strong filmmaking voice still in development, still polishing itself for what one feels confident are greater things to come. Recommended.