Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Robbie Pickering's NATURAL SELECTION blends fundamentalism, sex, procreation and liberation

In his first full-length film, Texas-born/NYU Film-School-graduated writer/director Robbie Pickering hits the proverbial nail on the head with a small-but-smashing little independent movie that juggles a bunch of balls cleverly and amusingly without dropping a single one. This is quite a feat -- all the more so since Pickering has peopled his film with a group of oddball characters who could at any moment derail the whole shebang. But, no: This one stays right on track, while offering a nice surprise here and there to keep us on our toes.

In his film NATURAL SELECTION, Mr. Pickering (shown at left and who himself looks barely beyond school age) tells a tale of a sexually frustrated wife who is so cowed by her hypocritically religious hubby that she can't even make good use of his early morning hard-on. When he collapses and goes comatose during an activity that makes sense only because his religious fanaticism allows his own needs no outlet, his little wife is in for quite a few surprises, beginning with her discovery of a son this guy has fathered way back when. From there, the movie turns into a kind of road trip, first with the wife alone and later traveling with that lately discovered "son."

In outline, this story doesn't sound all that different from your usual fish-out-of-water and/or road-trips-makes-good-friends movie. Yet it is. This is thanks to the writer/director's smart dialog that seems on-the-mark no matter how crazy things get (and they do) and to his casting his film with excellent actors and bringing them to just the right level of performance to first disarm us, and then entertain us, move us and make us laugh.

In the role of Linda, the wife, Rachael Harris, with more than 100 credits dotting her acting resume, finally lands the starring role that ought to have made her a star -- if little independent films could ever be seen in the way dumb-ass blockbusters always are. Harris is alternately dear, delightful, sad, pushy, confused and determined. It's one hell of a role and her performance matches it in every respect.

Her equal in acting chops, Matt O'Leary (above and below, left), recently so good in both Eden and Fat Kid Rules the World, would seem to be the current go-to guy when you've got a really oddball character you need to bring to life and keep the audience somehow rooting for. He achieves this in film after film, yet you would not mistake one of his characters for another. All he needs, it seems, is a decent script (which he did not get in American Bully) in order to create an indelible portrait of craziness, benign or otherwise.

The film's supporting cast includes the likes of John Diehl, Gayland Williams and the always good Jon Gries (below, right) as, respectively, Linda's husband, sister and brother-in-law. Every actor, down to those cast in the smallest role, shines, and so does each little scene along the way. Mr. Pickering has a knack for figuring out exactly what to show us, and when, and not letting anything go on a moment too long.

Natural Selection is a lot of fun, and though it often seems like you'll know exactly where it's heading, don't bet on it. There are surprises in store, and like everything else in this lovely little movie, they seem genuine and real. You can catch the film -- distributed by The Cinema Guild and running 89 minutes -- on Netflix streaming, on DVD and Blu-ray, and elsewhere, I expect.

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