Natural Selection

Natural Selection (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Abe (John Diehl) has just had a stroke which, according to the doctors, has led to an extensive neurological damage. Linda (Rachael Harris), his wife, is informed that Abe had suffered a stroke in a clinic while donating sperm. This is a shock to Linda because when they are in bed together, her husband does not seem to want to engage in any sort of sexual activity. The doctor tells Linda that Abe’s time is near and she ought to begin making preparations. Instead of doing so, she looks into the clinic to determine if Abe has fathered a child. The files state that he, in fact, has and his name is Raymond (Matt O’Leary) who currently lives in Florida.

“Natural Selection,” written and directed by Robbie Pickering, is a mild comedy about a religious woman who is forced to become that much more accepting of someone she believes to be the final link between herself and her husband. Although it is an intriguing but familiar premise, it is often inconsistent in terms of which scenes should have been expanded upon versus shortened or excised.

I enjoyed that the road trip with Linda and Raymond lacks glitter. Their interactions feel appropriately forced, at least initially, because they come from two different worlds. The awkwardness that they feel toward one another is pushed together until they learn in small but important ways how to open up without feeling the need to be on the defensive. There is a succinctness to their exchanges that feels realistic rather than cinematic.

What does not work is the way the religious community is portrayed. With the exception of the lead character, they are shown to be obstinately narrow-minded, always judging at a slight hint of something not considered normal. This would have been less of a problem if the subplot involving the local pastor, Peter (Jon Gries), had been cut out. Although not exactly a villain, his fears always feel as though they are more related to his creed rather than Linda’s safety. If the religious community had been given more complexity, Peter’s desperate efforts would have had a place in Linda and Raymond’s homecoming. The phone calls between Linda and Peter provide easy, light laughs but they are also the weakest moments in the film.

Harris and O’Leary are up to the task in portraying damaged people. Harris does a good job playing Linda who wants to look forward but unable to help herself from looking back and O’Leary holds his own, though not as consistently as his counterpart, as a young man shackled to his past who is afraid of the future. These two must break the habits they have been accustomed to in order to make room for something new. Unfolding at a slow but steady pace, we come to understand eventually how they can help each other.

“Natural Selection” has about half a dozen layers but only one or two is explored. The writer-director has a specific viewpoint and hopes to tell his story without compromise but one gets the feeling that perhaps the screenplay might have benefited from another round of editing. What I am certain about, however, is that we have yet to see Pickering’s best.

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