Rachael Harris and Matt O'Leary in "Natural Selection." (The Cinema Guild )
"Natural Selection," an intriguing and intelligent first effort from indie filmmaker Robbie Pickering, digs deep into the heart of Texas for its soulful tale of small town saints and sinners and a road trip to redemption.
Laced with humor and regret, the film rests on a finely textured performance by Rachael Harris, a prolific character actress especially memorable as the harpy of a fiancée perpetually haranguing Ed Helms in "The Hangover." Here she's dialed it down to a bare whisper for the 40ish Linda White, whose quiet life of desperation is about to be dissected.
Linda lives in a nondescript house in a nondescript Houston suburb. She's barren, which is burden enough, but her conservative church only condones sex for procreation, which means she and husband Abe (John Diehl) do a whole lot of praying. Repressed by her past, her husband and her religion, Linda's lifetime of anguish can be seen in the slump of her shoulders and every limp strand of that dishwater blond hair.
Her small corner of the world, which writer-director Pickering, director of photography Steven Capitano Calitri and production designer Michael Bricker have filled with so much that is mundane, from the curtains on the windows to the knickknacks gathering dust on the shelf, is one of those places so mind-numbing that it's tempting to scream, even if Linda won't.
When Abe has a stroke, the secrets of a lifetime start spilling out — starting with the fact that he suffered the stroke at the local sperm bank where he'd apparently been making weekly donations for the duration of their 25-year marriage. She's still reeling from that when Abe wakes from a coma long enough to ask for the 23-year-old biological son Linda never knew he had.
Thus begins her pilgrimage to find that son, to grant that final wish. Raymond (Matt O'Leary), the product of one of Abe's weekly "gifts," turns out to be a druggie and a drifter hiding out in Tampa, Fla., just one step ahead of the law. From the moment that Linda and Raymond encounter each other — a shouted conversation through the screen door of a rundown shack — the movie really settles in.
O'Leary and Harris turn out to be perfect counterpoints. O'Leary uses his lean frame to create a wiry and wired raw nerve of a young loser living on the edge. If Raymond represents untethered bad, Linda is deeply rooted goodness through and through. In Harris' hands, Linda is guileless but believable, her smile so worn and wary that it almost hurts to see it.
Though O'Leary ("Brick," "Spy Kids 2") has been acting since he was a kid, in "Natural Selection" he really stretches, bringing Raymond to surly, wounded life, exposing a world of hurt in his eyes. It helps that there is such grit to the dialogue, such darkness to the humor, distinctive enough to land the screenplay on Hollywood's Black List of the best unproduced work in town a few years ago.
The road trip back to Texas and the relationship that begins to develop between Raymond and Linda might have turned predictable with a less artful filmmaker in charge. Thankfully, "Natural Selection" is anything but. Yes, Linda is determined to get Raymond back home before Abe dies, and most certainly Raymond is out to con her, but that is just the starting point. They will both face many curves and crossroads, their course ultimately guided by the truths and the consequences of the choices they make.
Pickering is most interested in exploring the notion of choice, the way any one decision can shut down a life or open it up. Though he does a good job of keeping everyone guessing whether things will turn out for the best, it's virtually impossible not to head into the final moments of "Natural Selection" with a lot of hope.