Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SIFF — Natural Selection

Among the best reasons for the existence of SIFF (or TIFF, PIFF, CIFF, BIFF, FLIFF, SFIFF, or...) are the opportunities film festivals provide for unexpected discoveries. Typically those discoveries are:
  • low-profile indie films that are difficult, if not impossible, to see outside the festival circuit; 
  • foreign-language films that will regularly play at the Regal down at the mall (in the universe where unicorns give you a basket of warm blueberry muffins with every ticket purchased); 
  • animation and live-action entries that are so far outside the genre-category marketing box they might as well be on a surgical table underground at Area 51; 
  • and filmmakers whose command of their art and craft is right there on the screen, and whose careers we may be helping to launch right there in a room full of like-minded cinephiles.

Such a discovery for me came during yesterday's press preview screening of writer-director Robbie Pickering's Natural Selection (SIFF's page, official site).

It's not surprising that I'm much with the liking of Natural Selection. Occasionally I find a "small" or "festival" movie that feels like it was made just for me (Junebug) and Natural Selection comes mighty close to threading that sprocket. Moreover, at its SXSW debut in March, the film took the Grand Jury and Audience awards for best narrative feature, plus the prizes for best screenplay, editing, and score/music, plus Breakthrough Performance awards for actors Rachael Harris (Linda) and Matt O'Leary (Raymond). And then, Roger Ebert (one of my bellwethers) liked it so much he slotted it into last month's Ebertfest, where Pickering and actor Rachael Harris received Golden Thumb awards.

So, yeah, this one came pre-packaged in the shiny Win paper before I set foot in the theater. Still, because its success at SXSW and Ebertfest had not yet pinged my radar, I knew next to nothing about it beforehand. And honestly, the press kit's marcom synopsis didn't do much to hook me in:
Linda White, a barren Christian housewife, leads a sheltered existence in suburban Texas. Her world is turned upside-down when she discovers that her dying husband, Abe, has a 23-year old illegitimate son named Raymond living in Florida. Somewhere on the edge of guilt and loneliness, Linda grants Abe's final wish and sets off on a quixotic journey to find Raymond and bring him back before her husband passes away. Along the way, Linda's wonderfully bizarre relationship with Raymond will teach her more about herself than she ever imagined possible and force her to come to terms with her troubled past.
Oh, dear. Yet another "quixotic journey" affording Teachable Moments between mismatched strangers forced together by circumstances. Natural Selection pulls from a number of over-familiar tropes — the Road Trip trope, the Odd Couple, the Unexpected Friendship, the It's The Journey That Counts.... Do we need to go there and back again after Planes, Trains, and Hobbitses?

And yet...

And yet, like Richard Ayoade's feature debut Submarine, Pickering's Natural Selection moves its feet nimbly to sidestep tripping over its potential box of trites, and soft-shoes past the pat resolutions I feared and that a less confident film would succumb to. It doesn't so much "bust" the tropes as gently bend them into refreshing new contours.

Pickering's direction is brisk and precise without show-offy ostentation. His screenplay is well-observed and polished, offering his lead actors opportunities for emotional complexities, bang-zoom "big scenes," and delicate intimacies in a drama that's comic without being "jokey." It's clear that he likes and respects his characters even under circumstances when most of us would write them off as losers or pitiable or that big hot button: "damaged."

Linda and Raymond are damaged. Boy howdy. He is at least outwardly accepting of his lifelong junky-criminal no-hoper damage and, brother, that damage is thorough. (The clip above only hints at what's unveiled.)

Meanwhile, Linda starts her quest with no clue just how damaged she is (and has been for the past 24 of her 40 years) until the road trip forces her to see herself clearly for the first time in her confined, regulated, stunted adult life. Linda's journey to "do what's right" and her tenacity to see her mission through — and his to escape the law that's on his tail for busting out of jail in a lawnmower sack — set in motion a warmly realized pair of character arcs that approach from opposite directions, then end up twining around each other in the middle.

As is the way of movies like this, Linda and Raymond encounter obstacles and confrontations that drive them to clash before allowing them to bond, then peel back each other's layers and expose the damage they carry. (Each has revelatory secrets from their pasts that pay off in the film's final moments.)

I welcomed the open-endedness of Linda and Raymond's transformations. Their arcs may intersect long enough to provide the movie its plot, but Pickering doesn't let those arcs stop and settle, thunk, just because the closing credits are rolling. I always appreciate it when a writer or director encourages the viewer's imagination to fill out the picture, leaving well-chosen blanks for me to fill in myself, or beats the impulse to place a full-stop period at the movie's final frame. One of the things I admire about Natural Selection is the sense that it's the beginning of Linda and Raymond's individual futures, their arcs vectoring off in not entirely predictable directions that we can fill in ourselves. In a film that deals in core themes of escape and freedom and rebirth (Raymond's emergence from that lawnmower bag is visually significant in retrospect), there's no better way to handle those final scenes and minutes.

Key components here are some clever non-formula twists — for instance, Linda's devoutly celibate husband is dying due to a stroke he suffered while masturbating to porn at the sperm-donor clinic that after 24 years of regular visits greets him by his first name — some edgy-funny situations and lines, and Pickering's mindful avoidance of trite-and-true plot bricks and contrivances.

That said, Natural Selection does fit into enough mainstream parameters that it should make a marketing department happy. (It has not yet found a distributor, which frankly puzzles me. And that poster art has got to go.) Its conclusion will feel too "heartening" for some viewers. (Not me, obviously, but I'd understand the feeling.) You'll probably predict right when the plot beats will land even if they don't land exactly where you think they might. There's at least one fully loaded Chekhovian gun on the wall that I spotted long before its trigger was pulled. Yet even that preordained plot turn took a pleasing, less predictable direction than another writer might have taken.

Anyway, I liked it a lot.

However, my big SIFF discovery here wasn't so much Natural Selection itself, as worthy as it is. It's
  1. writer-director Robbie Pickering as Someone To Watch if — that's when, I suspect — Natural Selection ups his exposure and filmmaker cred. Bonus: he shot the movie in only 18 days, so the dude's a fast worker. And
  2. especially — especially — Rachael Harris.

Oh, my.

The first note in my scribbling-in-the-dark notebook during the screening was "Linda - fine actor, who is she?"

It turns out that I've seen Rachael Harris on and off for years, but somehow never let her name register in my hippocampus. Her Wikipedia and IMDb pages name a dozen places I've seen her. But this was the first time I really saw her, and her performance pressed Harris into my pleasure centers the way Amy Adams did in Junebug. Now she's someone I'll look for in earnest (I'll pass on Cougar Town, but still) and I hope this film gives her career a boost she so clearly deserves, both in comedy and straight-up drama.

Discoveries like that make all the *IFF disappointments (there are bound to be more besides the Miranda July) worth the exploration.

Music: Bud Powell in Paris
Near at hand: Blueberries