LAFF 2011: NATURAL SELECTION is Indie Gold

Ryland Aldrich, Festivals Editor

At a certain point in her career, Rachael Harris's agent advised her that she might be better off focusing on TV and commercials. To most audiences she is Ed Helms's bitchy fiancé from The Hangover - but she has also played small roles in a number of features and appeared in just about every TV show of the last decade from CSI to Reno 911. In Robbie Pickering's SXSW break out hit Natural Selection, Harris proves that agent was completely wrong, grabbing her role as the 40-something church wife by the neck and showing she has more than what it takes to be a leading lady.

Harris stars as Linda, the wife of a man so devout that they believe sex without procreation is a sin. Due to her own infertility, Linda is forced into a life of sexual frustration, filling the void with church life. Everything changes when Linda's husband has a stroke while donating sperm. Linda learns of her husband's long concealed secret penchant for release and sets off across the country to fulfill his dying wish of meeting his long lost son.

Pickering's dry wit really hits its stride when Harris finally tracks down the paradoxically repugnant Raymond - played with impressive prowess by Matt O'Leary. Raymond is on the run from the police with a backpack full of drugs and sees the comically naïve Linda as an easy mark. The two actors have instant chemistry and the real joy of the film comes in the evolution of their relationship from feigned civility to maternal tenderness and beyond.

At its heart, the film is a coming-of-age story - but instead of the typical teenage subject, here we see the transformation of a woman as she approaches middle age. Pickering wrote the screenplay as a love letter to his mother and the script shows remarkable insight into this woman's psyche for a man of barely 30. But beyond that, the film is also a lot of fun. Pickering's love for his characters is obvious - but it's a tough love, exhibited in his own strange way of throwing them into moving traffic and hoping they make it out the other side.

During its path to brutal domination at SXSW, Natural Selection picked up awards for Best Narrative Feature (both Grand Jury and Audience awards), Best Editing (for Michelle Tesoro's excellent work), Best Score/Music (iZLER, Curt Schneider), Best Screenplay, and Breakthrough Performance awards for both Harris and O'Leary. Jury head Roger Ebert then gave it the distinct honor of an opening night slot at his own EbertFest - the only 2011 film to play. It is easy to see why the film has received so much praise. This is an incredibly accomplished first feature, full of as much heart as hilarity. The film is still searching for a distributor - but if it can find the right support, it is the kind of movie that could break out and find a diverse appreciative audience.

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