A generous, unguarded performance from Rachael Harris cuts through the cuteness of a quirky premise in Natural Selection, an indie crowd-pleaser that cleaned up at the SXSW Film Festival in 2011. Harris can give good harpy—never more memorably than as Ed Helms’ nightmarish girlfriend in The Hangover—but in Robbie Pickering’s feature debut, she plays the opposite, a devout Christian housewife living in Houston who’s made herself a doormat to a husband (John Diehl) who won’t sleep with her because she’s barren, so according to “holy law,” sex is a sin.
With her wire-frame glasses and mom jeans, Harris has become dumpishly invisible to most of the people around her (save her brother-in-law, played by Jon Gries, who’s been nursing a secret long-term crush), but there’s also something sexy about her. She’s channeled more than two decades of sexual frustration into a general desire to give care. When Diehl has a serious stroke while donating to a sperm bank (his workaround on the Onan issue), Harris forgives him his technical infidelity. And in order to fulfill what she thinks is his last request, she heads to Florida in search of the son the clinic’s records say he fathered.
Matt O’Leary plays an addict on the lam who finds Harris’ arrival convenient, and soon, the odd couple ends up on a road trip. Harris tries her best to ignore her sort-of-stepson’s many issues, and while he initially resists, he’s slowly worn down by her relentless warmth, as she hovers over him, feeding him soup and gently probing him about his life. Natural Selection pings themes of nature-vs.-nurture and of religion (a topic it approaches with a heavy hand), but it’s most successful as the story of a woman finding a sense of self after years of accepting that she’s an object of pity and has no worth because she’s unable to have children. Her interactions with O’Leary go to predictable places—in hopes of stealing her car, for instance, he pressures her into getting drunk for the first time. But that seems less an issue thanks to Harris, who never treats her character as ridiculous or a stock type. It’d be easy to thread this story through with condescension, but instead, it’s modest and compassionate, a midlife awakening for a woman long out of touch with her own needs.