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SIFF: Natural Selection - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF: Natural Selection
Directing: B
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: C+

As cheapo independent features go, Natural Selection is well worth seeing. Possibly the accolades create expectations a tad too high: this movie won both the audience and jury awards at South by Southwest; and the director and lead actress both won Golden Thumb Awards at the 2001 Ebertfest. Maybe it creates expectations that are too low if I say it makes me wonder how weak the competition was.

Natural Selection actually won six prizes at South by Southwest, most of them justified, with the possible exception of Best Editing, which mystifies me. There's a scene involving a physical assault that feels like a chunk of it is missing, it jumps so quickly from one spot to another, and in such an awkward way that I found myself thinking, What's going on?

Luckily, there is much to redeem this film, not least of which is the cast. Rachael Harris is a motherless wife of twenty-five years, burdened with her husband's ultra-conservative Christian belief that because she can't have children, they must not "give in to temptation" because it will result in the "spilling of seed in vain." Linda appears perfectly willing to commit this so-called sin, if her husband (John Diehl) would just go for it. Instead, he has her sit next to her at the bedside and pray for the strength not to give in.

But then when Abe has a stroke at the sperm bank, Linda discovers Abe has been giving himself relief all these years. Evidently in his mind this isn't so much a sin because his seed is being used to produce children. Just not Linda's. And until now, Linda hasn’t been privy to it, and has been the one left with earnest sexual frustration.

When Abe, in a coma, has a flickering moment of seeming clarity, Linda thinks she hears a final request to find his son. And in one of the film's many moments of lapsing reality, Linda is granted access to private files by an employee at the sperm bank so she can look for said son. Why just this one is chosen when one would think Abe could very well have fathered dozens of children is not explained.

But Linda gets a name, finds an address, and drives from Texas to Florida to find him. Enter Raymond (Matt O'Leary), the escaped convict junkie found at the address, whom Linda takes for Abe's son and asks to bring back to a husband/father on his deathbed. Raymond jumps at the opportunity to sidestep the advancing authorities, and so begins one of cinema's oddest road trip/romances.

Natural Selection is certainly different, a clear point in its favor. In spite of their wildly divergent backgrounds and beliefs, Linda and Raymond develop a rapport and chemistry that is somehow believable, thanks to the actors portraying them. The movie may not always be technically up to par, but most of the time its production standards actually far exceed that of others with comparable budgets, and the script, by director Robbie Pickering, is mostly solid.

And I say "mostly" only because its treatment of conservative Christians is so unusual, and bordering on unrealistic. Both Linda and the other Christians surrounding her -- including her husband, her sister, and her pastor -- are portrayed as prim and proper only for show, but ranging from ridiculously foul-mouthed to vile individuals in their non-church lives. I'm not saying no Christians are like this, but most of them don't have such a dramatic dichotomy between how they appear at church and how they live their lives at home. This is especially the case with the pastor himself, who is barely containing his own lust for Linda.

But if the script doesn’t quite get them there on its own, the actors give the characters breadth and nuance in their own unique ways, somehow managing to make them both interesting and relatable. A couple of times poorly written lines will clunk out of their mouths, but most of the time you're eager to find out what will become of these people -- especially Linda and Raymond, whose relationship shifts from maternal to romantic, in a far less awkward way than you might think.

Thus, the overall story is indeed a compelling one, and often a very funny one at that: a couple of times I was sideswiped by particularly hilarious lines. Natural Selection has room for improvement, but most people involved clearly did the best with what they had to work with, which yields its own rewards.

Matt O'Leary and Rachael Harris are subject to 'Natural Selection'.

Overall: B
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