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Natural Selection

Natural Selection

You can pick your family, but you can't pick your genes

dir: Robbie Pickering

Every now and then you need a quiet, chilled-out flick as a bit of a palette cleanser. A bit of cooling pickled ginger after the burning momentary wasteland of wasabi. A nice, clean beer after a nasty shot of rotgut whisky served in a dirty glass. Most of the last twenty or so films I’ve watched have been pretty intense, so something light and breezy is surely desirable.

Natural Selection is one of those flicks I knew practically nothing about before watching it, other than it was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival some time or another. Something being a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival doesn’t usually make me want to watch something especially much, in fact it’s more likely to make me recoil in horror and contemplate watching another Michael Bay film instead.

But it was liked by a few people who I take seriously, and so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

It’s an odd bird of a flick, but nonetheless it’s an enjoyable one about a woman going on a very modest journey of reflection and self-discovery. Thankfully, this doesn’t involve Julia Roberts or Tuscany or getting a vibrator for the first time.

But it is oddly enjoyable even without any of that. Linda White (Rachael Harris) is the protagonist, and she’s a nice, God-fearing, God-bothering lady. It would seem unfair to emphasise that she’s an Evangelical Christian, but it’s central to the story, and doesn’t just reflect upon my many and varied biases.

It’s relevant right from the start, because it forms the basis of the entire character, and informs the picture we develop of the last 24 years of her life leading up to these present, interesting days.

She awakes one morning, next to her husband, who sleeps on. She has a look, a certain look to her, a certain hunger. He happens to be sporting what is euphemistically referred to as his morning glory, a breakfast boner, or literally as an unconscious erection. Her attempts to take advantage of it, to make productive use of it are rebuffed by her waking and foolish husband of twenty four years.

Why? Because he’s an idiot, that’s why. He’s a special kind of idiot, they both are. They’re the kinds of idiots idiotic religious restrictions create. She has been told for decades that she is infertile, and with the possibility that that’s true, she and her husband are fundamentally disallowed from having sex BECAUSE THERE’S NO CHANCE OF PREGNANCY!

That is flat out the dumbest fucking reason I’ve ever heard for two people not to have sex in all of human history. In fact, that’s the single greatest reason why people should be even more keen to have sex. It should be mandatory, in that case (consent of course in all things). To these godbothering types, however, it means the last twenty-four years of their lives have been quite pointless.

No, that’s not fair. They apparently love each other and they’ve built a life together, meagre as it might be, and sexless. Oh yeah, and being godbothering types, they take seriously the prohibition against masturbation as well.

Isn’t that an even worse kick in the teeth? Can’t have sex with your partner, can’t even masturbate, what’s the goddamn point?

Her resourceful hubby, however, has found a loophole, or at least had one recommended to him by some other fundamentalist wackjob preacher of whatever stripe or colour: to get around the sin of masturbation, he can go to a fertility clinic and jerk off to donate his genetic material, because then it’s justified, because someone hypothetically could get pregnant from it.

I would have thought that was a SIN as well, champ. I mean, wouldn’t it be ADULTUROUS to impregnate some other man’s wife, even if it’s with a turkey baster? All this technologically facilitated fornication makes me sick to my pious stomach.

Why am I going on and on about this stuff, why is it relevant, you may ask? Well, it’s because of her husband having a stroke whilst having a stroke at the clinic that Linda finds out about all of this. It’s because of this clinic that Linda finds out her stupid husband has a biological son out there, and because of her husband’s impending death that Linda sets off to find this chap and bring him to Houston to see his pappy before the Gates of Heaven are opened up and he’s given pride of place by God’s right hand for not sexually satisfying his wife for the last twenty four years.

Linda is a fundamentalist, yes, but she’s also a fundamentally nice person. She sets off on a journey, a pretty sad one, through the areas of America that you don’t usually see from your Manhattan apartment or your LA condo setting, because the thought of not honouring her dying husband’s last garbled wish fills her with too much terror. If there’s one thing she can console herself with throughout her long and pointless life it’s that she’s taken seriously the pledge to honour her husband in her wedding vows.

She goes all the way to Shittsville, Florida, to find a guy called Raymond (Matt O’Leary), or at least a guy she thinks is called Raymond. How the clinic could have the address of someone born via donor twenty years previous seems unlikely, but then I guess some people never do move from the house they’re born in. The house she finds Raymond in doesn’t look like it’s been cleaned since then either. He’s covered in tattoos, and is a loud-foul-mouthed nervy crim / addict on the run from the law, so he fights his naturally right paranoia and eventually hooks up with Linda.

When she’s knocking, initially, he’s yelling profanity about how he doesn’t want to hear about “no Jesus shit”. Ironic, huh. She does, however, keep a lid on the so-called Jesus shit, and tries to inspire him purely by her sweet decency in an indecent world chaperoned by a deeply indecent person. He just sees her as a very easy mark, although, as you would expect in these kinds of flicks, they both grow to respect each other and also see how horrible the other can be.

Central to this flick, and the possibility of our enjoying it, is the performance of the lead character. If she seemed too “boy howdy gee jiminy jillickers” it would have been insufferable. She’s a sweet decent person, and the fact that she’s a sheltered idiot blinded and blinkered by a faith imposed on her due to the selfishness of the people around her (quite bizarrely, I have to say, in that the people responsible for what “happened” to her long ago, and the imposed celibacy upon her seem to be acting out of malice rather than religious necessity. She’s been lied to and kept down pointlessly and fruitlessly for no good reason, and it’s going to take a scumbag like Raymond to raise her awareness of what life’s possibilities could be if she gives herself the chance.

Raymond’s got a far trickier role in this, in that he is a scumbag, a fairly unrepentant one at that, and yet we have to believe that he’s not entirely worthless or alternately that easily persuadable to change just because the plot requires it. If he switches so dramatically then he becomes less believable, and the flick dances on the knife’s edge of that in his interactions with Linda, especially towards the end.

I suppose it’s meant to be a comedy, and it is fairly amusing, but it’s not really a laugh out loud kind of film. It’s more quietly observed kind of humour, rather than the quirky type of “ain’t these hicks a riot?” rural depiction of shmucks we often get. Even though the construction of the scenario seems awfully (and almost farcically) elaborate to allow for what happens to happen, it’s not an issue, really, because it’s purpose isn’t to mock those with serious religious beliefs that actually adhere to them, it’s just to put two unlikely people in scenes together to see what happens.

Most of what happens seems perfectly right. What starts happening towards the end, despite how much I can see that it required it for certain plot machinations to be possible, seems less, how shall we say, believable. I have a hard time buying some of Linda’s actions towards the end, though her ultimate decision strikes me as the right one, whatever that means. It has an ending that is probably the right place for the character, but it still comes off as a bit unsatisfying unless you take the view that it leaves her in the right place from which her life can hopefully go in a better direction.

It’s a fairly low-budget production, with most of the story transpiring in dingy hotel rooms and diners, but there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s perfect for the story. I’m virtually positive that this flick will be watched by about another 10 people before it disappears into that special oblivion reserved for new films by Pauly Shore and Steven Seagal, but it’s a worthwhile flick about believable people living lives of quite noisy desperation, and those are stories I often appreciate, especially when they mostly avoid melodrama, treacle or histrionics, like this one manages to 98% of the time.

7 times your religion telling you not to have sex with your life partner is the reason to either get rid of your partner or your stupid religion out of 10

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“Now if you'll excuse me, I have children to attend to. They're our most important resource, Linda.” – I prefer them free range over caged, personally – Natural Selection

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