The most memorable element of Robbie Pickering’s debut feature, “Natural Selection,” is Rachael Harris’s portrayal of Linda, a dutiful wife whose older husband, Abe (John Diehl), refuses to have sex with her. They are Christians living on the outskirts of Houston with no children. Both are sure she is barren, and Abe believes that sex for procreation is the only reason to copulate. The poor woman is jumping out of her skin.
The role is a big turnabout for Ms. Harris, who played a mean, badgering fiancée in “The Hangover.” For “Natural Selection” she removed most of her makeup and let her hair droop.
Linda’s life suddenly changes when Abe has a severe stroke while at a sperm-donor clinic he has been secretly visiting for 25 years. We see a hilarious tidbit of the nun-and-priest dirty movie he was watching when he was felled. Fearing impending death, Abe mumbles to Linda that he wants to meet a son he has sired. Digging through the clinic’s records, she discovers one in Tampa, Fla., and goes to find him and bring him back in time.
This is not as funny as it may sound. But then “Natural Selection” is not quite a comedy. A dimly lighted film with washed-out color and a muffled soundtrack that renders some of the dialogue unintelligible, it still won a passel of awards at the 2011 South by Southwest festival. But its technical limitations are serious impediments to appreciation. The storytelling and editing are also choppy. And subsidiary characters that include Linda’s callous sister, Sheila (Gayland Williams), and her lecherous brother-in-law, Peter (Jon Gries), are cartoons.
Long before Linda tracks down Abe’s 23-year-old son, Raymond (Matt O’Leary), he has already made a spectacularly gross entrance. It comes in the opening scene, which shows him climbing out of a manure bag on a giant lawn mower outside the prison from which he is escaping. When Linda finds him living outside Tampa in a filthy shack littered with drug paraphernalia, Raymond is a snarling foulmouthed beast. But with the police hot on his heels, he has no choice but to flee with her.
Their journey back to Texas, which begins in her car and continues on a dirt bike, is a series of road-trip misadventures during which they warm toward each other. That warmth soon turns into serious heat.
Aside from Ms. Harris’s performance, the main reason to recommend “Natural Selection” — very conditionally — is that its creator clearly has talent. He simply lacked the resources to make the movie he envisioned.
“Natural Selection” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has profanity and sexual situations.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Robbie Pickering; director of photography, Steven Capitano Calitri; edited by Michelle Tesoro; music by iZLER and Curt Schneider; production design by Michael Bricker; costumes by Colin Wilkes and Jennifer Beck; produced by Brion Hambel and Paul Jensen; released by the Cinema Guild. At the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Rachael Harris (Linda), Matt O’Leary (Raymond), John Diehl (Abe), Gayland Williams (Sheila) and Jon Gries (Peter).