‘Natural Selection’ – as heavy-hearted as it is light-hearted

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Natural Selection

Directed By Robbie Pickering

Written By Robbie Pickering

2011, USA

Jesus culture is alive and well in Robbie Pickering’s Natural Selection. No one speaks in tongues or falls over in church or sings God’s praise in the choir, but following the Lord’s word is a way of life for the people in the small Texas town where the story takes place. No one is perfect, life will throw punches, but these folks aren’t worried because they know that He will help them find a way to cope.

Linda White (Rachael Harris) is a product of this upbringing and because of her unique situation, she suffers its consequences daily. Unable to bear children, Linda’s worth as a woman, wife and child of God seems to be in constant question. As if motherhood were the only way to reach adulthood, she is treated like a child herself by the people around her. When her husband lands in the hospital, with little chance of surviving, his own imperfections are revealed, one of them being that he has an illegitimate child living in Tampa, Florida. So, as if her life depends on it, Linda bursts through the wall of doubt and discouragement that’s been built up around her and she crosses state lines in an old hatchback to look for Raymond (Matt O’leary), the son she could never give her husband.

Did we mention that this is a comedy? Running parallel to Linda’s dark story, a story that only gets darker, there is a quirky road trip film full of swearing, aerial highway shots, embarrassing conversations, diner waffles, dirt bikes, cheap motels, drunkenness, concussions and heart.

By the time we meet Raymond, we know Linda well enough that we cringe at his brazenness and “don’t give me none of that Jesus shit” attitude. It’s this odd pairing of drug-addict and small-town Texas wife that provides fodder for laughter. “Could use a woman’s touch,” says Linda after she’s finally let into Raymond’s trash-encrusted mobile home. “Yeah, well, so could my pecker but that ain’t gonna happen.” And they’re off, on their way back to Texas in Linda’s small car, both blind to how much of a role they will soon play in each other’s lives.

It’s no wonder Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary both won awards for Breakthrough Performances at SXSW. As a character-driven film, its success relies immensely on the delivery behind this unlikely couple and the chemistry between them. Natural Selection didn’t stop there, though. Whether the film deserved to win nearly every award in the Narrative Feature category is up for debate, but that’s exactly what happened. The film won the Grand Jury award, the Audience Award, Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Score/Music.

Natural Selection blew up at SXSW because of its ability to pull off a painful but funny story in an honest, universal way. If you’re from Texas, you’ll feel like you’ve met some of these characters, or at least sat next to them during brunch at the Stage Coach Inn in Salado, Texas. But you don’t have to be from Texas to get it. Linda, with her high-waisted jeans, large-rimmed glasses and baggy jacket sometimes resembles a mom from the 90’s and sometimes like a vulnerable child, lost in her own clothes. Raymond, with his long, greasy hair, finally gives her the chance to mother someone, even if the duo has to jump directly into the dreaded rebellious teenage years. But in each other these two characters find validation when no one else will give it to them. That’s something we all long for and understand.

Drawing on his own Texas upbringing, Pickering has crafted a quirky film that’s as heavy-hearted as it is light-hearted.

– Alice Gray

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