10/16 - Natural Selection is the feature debut by Texas native Robbie Pickering, and the kind of personal, independent American film that will most likely connect with audiences at the CIFF, as it has at the SXSW film festival earlier this year. I had already heard strong recommendations in regards to the film on a couple of pod-casts, and when I took my seat for the screening on Sunday afternoon I told the woman sitting next to me as much, when asked what I had heard about it. Turns out she was testing the waters a bit, as she eventually revealed that she was Gayland Williams (Sheila), one of the actresses in the fine ensemble Pickering managed to assemble for his breakthrough film. Williams shared with me some interesting details about the production of Natural Selection while we waited for the screening, which mostly centered around the performance of Harris, whose character is partially based on the director's mother. Williams praised Harris's work in the film, which really is a revelation, and also let me in on the fact that a few of the costume pieces that Harris wears in the film are the actual clothes of Pickering's mother.
The film opens with a particularly memorable take on the prison break, which establishes Pickering's inventive sense of humor, but suffers from a bit of "indie quirk" indulgence, not unlike a few other moments from the film's opening passages. I sensed this might be the case going in. I've seen enough American indies at this point that I've have developed a kind of "quirk"-y sense (like "Spidey" sense, but instead of imminent danger I just foresee a lot of eye rolling). Unfortunately, I think some of this grew out of films that I really love--the early Jarmusch and Hartley--but has become it's own kind of monster. Natural Selection never totally succumbs to these indulgences, but I'm not sure it entirely succeeds in convincing us of it's narrative arc, either. The strength of the film lies in it's characters, and Linda (Harris), the sexually dissatisfied wife of a repressed Christian fundamentalist (John Diehl, also excellent here, as he was in Monte Hellman's recent Road to Nowhere), is so well drawn and played that you feel as if the film could let go of a few other elements in favor of exploring her alone. Linda is a fascinating character; a particular blend of slightly obnoxious rural religiosity and weak will that audiences will recognize immediately. When Linda seeks out and finds her husband's illegitimate son, Raymond (Matt O'Leary, also featured in Live Free or Die Hard and a couple of the Spy Kids movies), we discover the truly fragile balance of her religious convictions, as the film transforms into a road film, and Linda and Raymond connect in a way that reveals them as two of the weakest creatures in the forest. Their plight becomes increasingly desperate, and a bit depraved, as Linda's husband, recovering from a stroke, waits at home with the pastor's wife (Williams). Meanwhile, pastor Peter (John Gries, who will always be Lazlo Hollyfeld to me) pursues Linda with a perfectly played repression, cranking up the "metal" in some hilarious cross-cut moments. By the time the pursuit has ended and Linda is back in her small congregation, the resolution of Linda and Raymond's relationship seems a bit forced, but Pickering rightly allows the film's conclusion to give everything over to Harris.
The interplay of Harris and O'Leary is at the heart of the film, although Linda's character arc is much more well drawn than Raymond's. O'Leary is very good in the film, but I think the strong divide between the prison escapee/drug addict that he has to strike such a harsh note with in his opening scenes collides with the indie darling he has to become by film's end, stretching his task as an actor a bit too thin. A very watchable independent film with great performances, Natural Selection will definitely find a loving audience.
|Rachel Harris in Natural Selection|
|Rachel Harris and Matt O'Leary in Natural Selection|