It’s been interesting to revisit last year’s SXSW big winner a year after its premiere. Natural Selection, director Robbie Pickering’s ostensible comedy, has what could be the platonic conception of a festival film premise (Christian woman goes on road trip to find husband’s sperm donor son!), but a second viewing only reinforces its dramatic core. While knowing the outcome dulled some of the zany plot twists, it also sharpened the lens on leads Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary. They’ve been rightfully lauded (Harris with an Independent Spirit nomination), and the performances hold up over time. There’s a bit of schizophrenia in the way the film swings from its madcap first act into the “journey” part of the story, but from start to finish, Harris grounds her character with a plaintive sort of truth. In less nimble hands, she could have been a gross caricature (see: most comedies about Christians), but the jizz and Jesus taglines distract from the fact that Natural Selection is really a film about a woman’s quiet loneliness and the moment she begins reaching for desire. But before you can page Shirley MacLaine, Pickering cuts the Mom-com moments with O’Leary’s Raymond, whose presence promises chaos and mild violence. Pickering’s directorial debut, an odd but heartfelt tribute to his own mother, ends up somewhere between Raising Arizona and Kelly Reichardt’s debut, River of Grass.
Rachael Harris plays barren Christian housewife Linda White, whose small-town Texas life is thrown into turmoil when her husband Abe (John Diehl) has a stroke. Unbeknownst to Linda, he’s been sneaking off to the sperm bank for years, and he passes out in the clinic while making one of his regular donations. Bewildered and afraid, she leaves an unconscious Abe behind to go find one of his sperm-donation children, and — Mom jeans, fanny pack, and all — hits the road. If this setup might have benefited from less, well, setup (if it’s a road movie, I don’t really care why they get on the road), the story really picks up with the introduction of O’Leary’s charming dirtbag Raymond. He begins the film by birthing himself from a prison mower’s bag, a mulchy baptism that he greets with triumphant fists raised (he remains notably filthy, also bruised and bloodied, for most of the film, which suits O’Leary’s boyish charm). He’s jumpy and paranoid from being on the lam (and other controlled substances) when Linda shows up at his door, all sweetness and good intentions. She absurdly queries about his hobbies and pets, and he’s right to mistake her talk of his father as “Jesus shit” and toss her out. But lo, a late-night police raid has him reconsidering, and the two are soon on the road back to Texas.
The lukewarm part of the story concerns Linda’s attempts to evade her domineering sister and weenie brother-in-law, who doesn’t really hide his very un-Christian preference for Linda. But thankfully, the film barely pit-stops for those expository bits, focusing mainly on the burgeoning relationship between Linda and Raymond. One of Pickering’s bolder moves is to allow the line between Linda’s mothering of Raymond to blur and eventually smolder into something deeper and more confusing. She is a woman desperately in need of affection and, even more so, purposeful connection. Some flaw has kept her frigid, and it’s lovely to watch her thaw in Raymond’s fucked up, primal presence. She’s smart, aware of her reflexive “niceness,” and you can see other’s disgust and pity for her shared by Linda herself. A liar and a thief, Raymond is unworthy in many ways, but he alone shows respect for Linda, and that proves to be a virile and fundamentally human kindness.
Linda’s eventual homecoming is of course fraught. She still has a passive shell, but in Raymond’s presence, a transference of will seems to have happened. Unlike Raymond, who prefers to dive through the nearest open window, Linda charts her tidal shifts and makes choices. Although we never get to see what Linda makes of her life, at least she now has one.