When her husband Abe (John Diehl) has a stroke and ends up in the hospital in the middle of a sperm bank donation, Linda (Rachael Harris) struggles to make sense of her life. A devoted Christian, she's spent the last several years of her marriage grappling with her own sexual desires; she's unable to have children, and Abe doesn't feel that physical intimacy without the goal of motherhood is in keeping with their faith. Upon learning that Abe's sperm donation has been going on for decades, she heads back to the clinic looking for answers and learns that Abe has an adult son, Raymond, who she decides to track down while Abe recovers.
Actor Rachael Harris is probably best known for her brief supporting role in The Hangover (as Ed Helms' ridiculously evil wife), but there's nothing in that movie to suggest the performance she gives here. From the physical -- director / writer Robbie Pickering dresses her in a puffy lavender coat and gigantic, 1980s glasses, strips her of makeup, and emphasizes her tiny 5'1" frame -- to the emotional, she inhabits Linda body and soul, painting a perfect picture of sweet naïveté while still dipping each line into any number of emotional shades, conveying regret, love, wistfulness and sympathy in each and every line reading.
Upon arriving in Florida, Linda heads to the address from the clinic, discovering what to many would be a vision out of a nightmare: a house asking to be condemned, dark and dirty, and a man who belongs that kind of house. Her Raymond (Matt O'Leary) is a skinny, shifty young man whose skepticism at Linda ("No Jesus talk! Are you a cop?") suggests a laundry list of criminal activity, and whose home indicates heavy drug use, at the very least. Linda, however, is unfazed: if this is her boy, so be it. Thanks to some stroke-of-luck timing, Raymond is eager for a ride out of the state, and the two hit the road almost immediately, and try to find common ground.
Having seen so many movies about mismatched people (perhaps the world's most common film genre), it's wonderfully refreshing how non-judgmental Linda is of Raymond's choices. A lesser movie would have Linda reeling from culture shock at Raymond's dirty mouth, smoking and lying, but Linda never bats an eye. She's genuinely thrilled to hear every story he has to tell, and as their journey takes several unplanned detours, their relationship is allowed to bloom and change because the characters aren't at odds with one another the whole way. It helps that O'Leary matches Harris beat-for-beat, imbuing an angry loser with moments of insight and compassion that round Raymond out. By the time the pair are breaking into a waffle house for a late dinner, the film has found a surprising, rewarding chemistry between its two protagonists, each with their own wounds to lick.
As the two form a relationship, Pickering does a nice job of showcasing small-town America along the journey between Florida and Texas. He makes the small-scale nature of the film work with the story, allowing the action to feel at home at dingy bar or a cramped motel room. Jon Gries provides some comic relief as one of Linda's family friends, following her out of concern for her emotional well-being. Disappointingly, Pickering's threads don't quite come together with as much emotional satisfaction as one would like; the payoff may be the one that the film sets up, but it just doesn't land with the intended dramatic weight. Then again, there's just so much to enjoy in Linda and Raymond's time together; it reminds one of the old adage that it's not where you're going, it's how you get there.
The artwork for Natural Selection is "of a style" -- the modern interpretation of the '80s trucker hat look, or whatever you want to call it -- but it's nice. I also really appreciate that the designers put the names above the title, because the image has the actors standing in the opposite order. The disc comes in a plastic-conserving eco-case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Cinema Guild's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of Natural Selection is strong, but not exceptional. I didn't notice any artifacting, edge enhancement, or compression issues, but the image is just generally soft and only offers solid detail in a few extreme close-ups. Some aliasing can be spotted, and maybe a tiny bit of banding. Thoroughly "fine" -- no serious complaints -- but not a stand-out or impressive transfer, either.
Another day, another low-key film. What to say about this Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track? It gets the job done, which mostly concerns quiet dialogue, although occasionally a parade or a lawnmower will provide a little surround sound activity, as does the film's selection of songs and the original score. Disappointingly -- you guessed it -- the disc lacks any subtitles or captions, which is, as always, a bummer, particularly during some whispered, drunk dialogue.
The only extras are some short, EPK-style interviews with Rachael Harris (3:15), Matt O'Leary (3:48), and "Crew Members (2:42) -- director/writer Robbie Pickering, producer Brion Hambel, and producer Paul Jensen. No film clips, but these on-set observations are not very insightful.
An original theatrical trailer for Natural Selection is also included. Trailers for Step Up to the Plate, Neighboring Sounds, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Turin Horse, Everyday Sunshine, Patience (After Sebald), The Day He Arrives, Putty Hill, Beeswax, and Marwencol are also included under the special features menu.
Natural Selection is an imperfect film, running off the road once or twice along its emotional road trip. However, knockout performances by Harris and O'Leary are more than enough reason to give Natural Selection a shot. Recommended.
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