Gayland Williams ("Sheila") and Michael Bricker of "Natural Selection."
The first feature-length outing by Director/Writer Robbie Pickering, “Natural Selection,” played Chicago’s 47th International Film Festival on Sunday. It was a welcome change from the independent films and documentaries exploring suicide, murder and torture. I was delighted to find a movie about living life that had such a well-written script, such enjoyable humor and such good performances from all.
Everything in the film worked, from the cinematography (Steve Calitri, with editing by Michelle Tesoro) to the humor to the symbolism. Rachel Harris’ Linda White (Rachel played Melissa in 2009’s “The Hangover”) was one of the most skillful turns by an actress I’ve seen so far this year. Three actresses in the Chicago competition whose films screened could easily be Best Actress nominees, with Tilda Swinton (“We Have to Talk About Kevin”), Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn”) and Rachel Harris in “Natural Selection” leading the list. (And never count Meryl Streep out, as she takes on “The Iron Lady”).
The plot of “Natural Selection” focuses on a character named Linda White, who is modeled on Robbie Pickering’s own mother whose real name is Linda White. In fact, the puffy jacket used in the film belonged to Director Pickering’s Mom. Production designer Michael Bricker and cast member Gayland Williams (Sheila) were present to answer questions after the movie screened and shared that detail, plus some behind-the-scenes about the motivation to make this particular film.
Bricker shared with the audience that Pickering wanted to make a film about how the weaker creatures in the forest survive. He was worried, at the time, about his mom’s being alone, as his stepfather, Bill (to whom the film is dedicated) had recently died. How do people who go through life trying to be “pleasers” and going along with the more dominant individuals among us fare?
The film opens with a Biblical quote: (Genesis 38: 9) “And God said to Onan, thou shalt not spill thy seed in vain.” Linda has been pronounced barren years earlier and is unable to give her husband, Abe, played by John Diehl (Detective Larry Zito on “Miami Vice” from 1984-1987) a child. Abe is deeply religious. For their entire 25-year marriage he has withheld sex from Linda because “God says it’s a sin to act on these desires if you aren’t making babies.” Instead, Abe traveled to the Vista Care Fertility Clinic where he deposited his sperm weekly while watching pornographic movies.
It is while making one of the deposits at the “bank” that Abe has a stroke and Linda learns the truth about how Abe has coped with his own sexuality all these years. In the opening scenes, however, Abe asks Linda to pray with him and it is pretty clear that Linda, whose libido is proven to be undeniably healthy, is just supposed to suck it up and do what Abe wants, once again seeking to please her man. Linda even says, “Whatever makes Abe happy makes me happy.” But does it, really? The film will examine that proposition; the viewer can judge for him or herself. One thing that Linda herself acknowledges is that she doesn’t like to be alone. She finds the presence of another person comforting, even if that other person is inflicting his will on her, like it or not. When on the road seeking Raymond Mansfield in Florida, Linda even attempts to call up the desk clerk at one of the motels she has checked in to, simply to talk to another human being. The lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” would have sufficed for Linda’s plight, but, instead, we have Raymond saying of Linda, “The chick’s got so many holes, I guess it’s hard to keep them all shut.”
The next scene shows a man mowing grass. We learn a few moments later (in a scene derivative of “Raising Arizona”) that inside the grass bag is a prisoner escaping from Huntsville Prison. He forces his way out of the bag after the lawn mower is left untended and flees to an old colleague’s home: Raymond Mansfield’s ramshackle residence in Tampa, Florida. It is Raymond who is the biological son of Abe White (born of Abe’s sperm from the Vista Care Fertility Clinic) but Clyde Brisbee is the escapee guest in residence at Raymond’s pad when Linda arrives.
After Abe’s stroke, Linda discovered that Abe has a son somewhere in Florida, a son he has never met. The doctors tell her Abe is not going to make it, so Linda sets off to find his child. As the film’s log-line notes, “God help her!” When she comes to Raymond’s door, the young man is quite adamant about not wanting any “Jesus crap” from his clean-cut visitor. In fact, he insists that Linda pay him $20 for 5 minutes of talk time. Unkempt. Drug-using. Living in a pit. Linda says, “This place could use a woman’s touch.” Raymond responds, “So could my pecker but that ain’t happening, either.”
I was interested in the respective ages of the two leads. After all, Linda White of the film says she has been married to Abe for 25 years. Rachel Harris, who plays Linda, in real life was born in 1968. Matt O’Leary, a Chicago-born actor who has been working since age 13, was born in 1987. I have 2 children born those exact years, so Linda is supposed to be 19 years older than Abe’s “son,” (whom, we learn in the course of the movie, is not his son at all).
Raymond (Matt O’Leary) is not too keen on accompanying Linda on a cross-country trip to see Abe before he dies, but an unexpected visit from the police to his drug-riddled lair quickly changes his mind. Linda represents an opportunity to flee Tampa and avoid returning to Huntsville Prison. So, off the two-some go in the hatchback Linda has driven to Florida.
The car is symbolic of the relationship between Abe and Linda with lines like these: “A man gets used to a good old car and he misses it when it’s gone…I’m starting to think it was a piece of shit to begin with.” Later, when the car has been stolen (thanks to Raymond’s unsuccessful attempt to ditch Linda and strike off on his own in it) and Linda has returned home, the miraculously recovered Abe asks Linda if it wasn’t just a mistake losing the car.
Linda responds, “It was a mistake. Yes, it was. All of it.” Only, by then, seeing Abe through the eyes of pseudo-Raymond and others, she is realizing some hard truths about her marriage and Abe’s behavior throughout their 25 years together. She’s not really talking about the car at all.
Michael Bricker, Production Designer for "Natural Selection" awaits the screening of the film.
Linda has longed to make a trip to Morgan’s Key, where a person can be a universe of one. The snow globe representing it reminded me of the 1980 film “Resurrection” with Ellen Burstyn, Sam Shepard and Richard Farnsworth. In that film, a postcard of Machu Pichu took on symbolic significance. It represented that destination we all strive to reach in life, just as the postcards from Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman) to his fellow prison inmates held that distinction in the days when people actually sent postcards and letters. That mythic place will make us whole and happy. In this movie, that place is Morgan’s Key, which Linda’s older sister Sheila (well-played with a flair for the bitchy and a broad Texas accent by Gayland Williams) has visited, but Linda has not. (Reminds of another great line of dialogue, spoken by Raymond to Linda: “Maybe we’ll catch a unicorn takin’a shit of lullabies.’”)
The film was shot in Smithville, Texas, also the location for “Hope Floats” and “The Tree of Life.” The small town (population 4,000) has its own film committee and, according to Production Designer Michael Bricker, couldn’t have been more accommodating. (Every hotel room contained a DVD of Sandra Bullock’s “Hope Floats” film, and the huge tree in Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” is a Smithville landmark.)
Although first-time director Robbie Pickering studied film in New York and California, he lived in Texas and knew Smithville, which is near Austin. The film not only won big at SXSW, but also won an Audience Award in Athens, won 2 awards in Indianapolis, another in Kansas, and Director/Writer Pickering has been given a Sundance Award to allow him to make more films. This is good news for those of us who have been suffering through films on suicide, grisly murder(s) and all manner of human suffering. Another bit of good news is that Cinema Guild is going to distribute the film. Writer/Director Pickering was not present in Chicago because he was accepting an award in New York from the New York Friars.
In his place, Production Designer Bricker explained that his path to the film and career started when he studied at the University of Texas in Austin (near Smithville), earning a Master’s in Architecture. He applied to be an intern on a film. He was hired and promoted rapidly to the point that he was, first time out, the Production Manager on a film with 4 sets being built for the movie’s use. His plan for “Natural Selection” was to focus on decay and lifelessness, with “different versions of ‘not right,’ moving on to more colorful images later.”
Gayland Williams, who was also present at the Chicago screening, explained that she was the last Texas principal hired, as most of the actors and actresses were from Los Angeles. As Gayland said, “Sheila was not a real sympathetically written character.” Indeed, she was not. She was the older sister who gave her sister bad medical advice (a recurring theme, intentional or unintentional, is truly horrible medical diagnosis of major characters verging on malpractice). That advice changed her sister’s life.
Meanwhile, Sheila seems quite selfish in flaunting her healthy children before a woman who cannot bear children. She also seems aware that her husband, Peter, a minister, seems quite attracted to her pretty younger sister and takes every opportunity to squelch that. Peter was well played by Jon Gries. His own road trip to rescue Linda after her car is stolen is comical.
The only person missing on October 16th who could have made a trip back home and appeared in support of the film was the film’s leading man, Matt O’Leary, who plays Raymond White/Clyde Brisbee. O’Leary, a Chicago native, has been acting since age 13. I remember him as “the Brain” in “Brick,” a 2005 independent film sensation.
One last bit of praise for Izler Curt Schneider, whose work as Music Supervisor was spot-on. The film won for Best Score/Music at SXSW and was nominated for a World Soundtrack Award. In addition to Schneider’s original scoring, many of the songs were performed by the group Futurebirds.
See this film if it comes to a theater or video store near you. It will amuse and entertain and watch out for Robbie Pickering and crew in the future.