Natural Selection, which housed SXSW last year, could be mistaken for one of those films in which the director has valiantly tried to overcome a shallow screenplay through sheer panache. It’s a beautiful looking film, lensed in studied cinemascope, and it boasts strong, three-dimensional performances—all virtues in service of a powerfully standard road-trip comedy laced with broad, easy jokes about Christian fundies. Then comes the shock: The director and screenwriter are both Robbie Pickering, and each is the same person. To say, Pickering—making his feature debut—is a better director than writer is to state the obvious; the clash between his uneven abilities creates a moderately fascinating interplay.
About Pickering’s lesser talent: comedian Rachael Harris, trying on dramedy and an “everyperson” makeup-less look, plays Linda, a middle-aged Christian first seen trying to take advantage of her husband’s morning wood. Alas, Abe (John Diehl) is not having it. Turns out, Linda is barren, and the two are so devout he refuses to indulge her wanton needs, even after 24 years of sexual frustration. It’s not long before Abe, who gets his jollies as a habitual sperm donor, suffers a stroke while whacking it to nun porn. Whiplashed by such revelations, Linda decides to make her husband feel better by tracking down one of his inadvertent spawn, namely Raymond (Matt O’Leary), a disheveled on-the-lam con with no interest in seeing his father but every interest in exploiting this thick-as-a-brick woman’s unfailing naivete.
Would you believe these two eventually share a heart-to-heart, meeting halfway and improving the other? Pickering’s thoughtful direction, which mires the alternately cartoonish and cliched proceedings in a hazy glow that brings things ever so slightly closer to earth, softens the blow when the blow would be better rendered null. Elsewhere he tries too hard. The opening image, of O’Leary bursting from the lawnmower bag that is his quirky prison escape method, strikes a nice note between quasi-poetic and absurd, but by the end he’s resolving drama through montages set to a Dr. Dog soundalike. His actors find the balance Pickering can’t master, Harris especially: without breaking a sweat, she makes Linda’s belated awakening actually moving rather than theoretically so.