The quiet scenes between Raymond and Linda are pure poetry and a fantastic course on subtle writing.
It is always refreshing to see an actor push themselves to try something outside their comfort zone. Rachael Harris, who is best known for her many TV credits as well as her scene-stealing performance in The Hangover, stretches way beyond her usual sardonic persona to give an incredibly moving and serious performance in Natural Selection. Though the movie itself has its problems (as minor as they are), Harris’s work here is some of the best acting in the last few years.
Linda (Harris) and Abe (John Diehl) are good, God-fearing Christians who were not blessed with the ability to have children. Even though they have been married for over 20 years, Abe believes that, since they are not able to procreate, they should not engage in any sexual activity at all. While Abe seemingly has no problems with this, Linda is struggling. Though a dutiful and loyal wife, Linda asks their pastor and friend, Peter (Jon Gries), if they are living their lives correctly. Peter clearly has eyes for Linda and so his advice is less than objective.
When Linda is told Abe has suffered a stroke and was rushed to a hospital, she finds out he experienced the stroke while giving a donation at a sperm bank, something he has apparently been doing quite regularly for pretty much the entirety of their marriage. Linda is furious with Abe but stays by his side. When he mumbles something about having a son, Linda takes it as her duty to track him down and bring him back. The son, Raymond (Matt O’Leary), is living in Florida and has more than a few problems with the law from which he is happy to get clear. From the start of their trip, though, it’s clear Raymond isn’t telling Linda everything and that she is too oblivious (or ignorant) to notice.
There really aren’t enough good things to say about Harris’s work as Linda. She plays the character as a simple, devoted wife, but never a simpleton. She is a devout Christian, but not a blind follower. Harris makes Linda feel real through the numerous idiosyncrasies and character habits that truly flesh out the role. Rarely found on “hottest celebrities” lists, Harris can’t hide her beauty, even under washed-out makeup and ’80s-style glasses. We’re drawn to Linda because her physical beauty is disarming and her generosity is infectious.
O’Leary gives a fine performance as Raymond, though it can be uneven at times. O’Leary can’t quite decide if Raymond is a petulant man-child just looking to rebel, or an honestly cold-hearted criminal. The unevenness can be distracting, but the quiet scenes between Raymond and Linda are pure poetry and a fantastic course on subtle writing.
Written and directed by first-timer Robbie Pickering, Natural Selection has a very easygoing pace, similar to the slower lifestyle of many small towns. The film never drags, but the script does meander a bit more than it needs to, especially when it comes to Raymond’s many temper tantrums that start to feel repetitive. Pickering has a great ear for dialogue and a terrific eye for capturing magnificent images. Though not your typical “road movie,” it is nevertheless, and the relationship that blooms is unique and heartbreaking.
Natural Selection is a very tender and heartfelt story that will have a strong emotional impact on most people. Despite a few missteps, it is thoroughly enjoyable, thanks in large part to the incredible performance by its lead actress. | Matthew Newlin