The phenomena is universal: the quirky behavior and beliefs of your relatives can embarrass you far more than is warranted by the actual behavior and beliefs. What might be brushed off by the unaffiliated can trigger a slow blushing burn in a son or daughter, husband or wife. Association works as an (admittedly questionable) accelerant not just for guilt, but also for mortification.
I think "embarrassed by association" goes a long way to explaining my groaning irritation with Natural Selection's premise: a Christian couple in Texas live in a sexless marriage because the wife (Linda) is infertile and the husband (Abe) believes it's a sin to "spill his seed in vain" based on God's admonition to Onan in Genesis (38:9). Raised in Texas as a non-denominational fundamentalist, I cringed—literally—at the biblical hermeneutic employed to come up with that bit of life application.
The introduction of the couple's pastor, Linda's brother-in-law Peter, did little to soften the lines on my face. Clearly distressed by the lack of sexual relationship with her husband and looking to her pastor for guidance, Linda does mention that not everyone in the church holds this conviction (thank God, not the pastor, apparently), but contends that it's what Abe believes and so it's what goes. And she's not complaining about it, mind you. One's ideas about a husband's spiritual headship of the home notwithstanding, there's a misappropriation of the Genesis passage in play here that has serious ramifications for the mental and physical health of his parishioners. And any pastor worth his pulpit should be guiding and teaching Abe and Linda on this point. Instead, Pastor Pete offers the most bland of encouragements and barely conceals his own infatuation with Linda. I wondered later if Peter didn't challenge Abe's bad theology because he didn't like the idea of another man having sex with her. So, yeah, not a fan of the pastor. Sigh. The pastor's wife—Linda's older sister, Shelia—only shows up to wave her healthy children in Linda's face and dispense bad medical advice. She's more of an idea—a bossy mean girl with a drawl and a Bible—than a character.
But, of course, I'm being overly sensitive. In the grand tradition of indie films, Natural Selection paints life with a decidedly absurd gloss that serves its purposes well. Its purposes being an exploration of the ways the "weaker" among us (the passive, the people pleasers, the under-achievers) navigate a world seemingly intent on the survival of the fittest. I point out my own biases (and perhaps some of yours) in relation to the premise of Natural Selection so that when I give this movie three stars, you understand that those stars are hard-earned based on criteria outside the control of first-time writer/director Robbie Pickering—namely, my family.
Fully two of those stars might be summed up with one name: Rachael Harris. Perhaps best recognized as Stu's irritating girlfriend in The Hangover, Harris brings Linda's decisions and concerns to life with incredible nuance and empathy while navigating terrain that is both comedic and dramatic, often at the same time. It's a testament to Pickering's script and to Harris that Linda's personality, while somewhat naive, is never cloying. Despite her husband's edict, she still harbors and expresses sexual desire for him, making herself both vulnerable and assertive. She is submissive, but not a doormat. When Linda learns that Abe, throughout the 20 plus years of their marriage, has been making twice-weekly donations at the sperm bank (deposits aided by religiously themed porn), her fury is muted by shame—shame that she was unable to provide children for Abe, and shame about the specter of looming loneliness now that Abe seems unlikely to recover from a recent stroke during his last visit to the bank.