Never judge a film by its title, its cast or its setting. That was the lesson for me in Natural Selection, an extraordinary first feature film written and directed by Houston native Robbie Pickering, which screened at the 2011 Houston Cinema Arts Festival.
After winning top honors at South by Southwest last year, the film has been on the festival circuit all year. Finally, Houston gets to see what its Jersey Village son has been up to, with a week-long stint at Sundance Cinema's new Screening Room starting Friday.
It's a genre defying, coming-of-age film, centering on a super Christian housewife in search of her ill husband's sperm donor son, some adventure, and finally herself. Think screwball comedy meets road film mashup, a buddy movie, where the heroine realizes that she doesn't really need one.
With outstanding performances by Rachel Harris (The Hangover) and Matt O'Leary (Spy Kids 2), Natural Selection has garnered attention from such stalwarts as Rogert Ebert. I caught up with the filmmaker close to the anniversary of his big win in Texas.
CultureMap: It's been a year since you cleaned up at SXSW, winning six awards. What do you have to say for yourself?
Robbie Pickering: More than I ever expected. We are opening in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, 15 cities in all. It's really cool to see so many people interested in the film, especially since we don't have a big PR machine behind us.
CM: Your schedule made me tired, another week, another festival.
RP: It has been a crazy year and I'm grateful for it. Hotel rooms are strange for sure. I'm anxious for regular audiences to see the film, not just film festival folks. It's been an instructive year. I got this far, and I think I get can do the next thing. I did more than I ever thought. Made my mom happy, too.
CM: About your mom, it was lovely that you brought her down to stand beside you during the post-show Q & A after the Cinema Arts screening. She raised you well. How exactly did she inspire Natural Selection?
RP: I wrote the script while my stepfather was dying, and realized my mother would be alone. She had never been alone. So I wanted to make a movie about a woman, like my mother, who can't sleep in her bed alone at the beginning, and can by the end.
CM: What I found profound about your film is its slippery genre nature. It's really a coming of age movie for a middle-aged woman. How rare is that? Those stories are never told. I tried to call it a road movie at the Cinema Arts presentation, which you quickly dismissed.
RP: Oh no, was I rude?
CM: Not at all, just very clear, that Natural Selection is not a road movie.
RP: I wasn't thinking of that at all during the process. Road movies were not my references. My references include Fellini's La Strada, Juliet of the Spirits, even The Secret of the NIMH, and Silence of the Lambs, films with strong female characters.
CM: Rachel Harris is outstanding as a complex, comedic force of female nature. How did she come to be involved in the film?
RP: When the casting director suggested Rachel I first said no. Then I had lunch with her. Immediately, I coud see her honesty and vulnerablity. She blew us away on the first take.
She's funny and heartbreaking in the same moment. It's also her first lead dramatic role. What a gift it was to have her. Even if you hate the movie you have to see her brilliant performance.
CM: It's a hard movie to hate. There's something so earnest and disarming about it. I usually get nervous around super Christian types, but even that aspect of the film was entertaining and, well, interesting. Your portrayal of Christian life is funny, irrerevent and respectful. That mix can't be easy, but you did it.
It's generous and keeps the focus on the story, not the setting.
RP: Exactly. The movie has played all over the South, and very few church people are offended. Taking pot shots at Christianity is really boring.
CM: There's not a drop of boring in Natural Selection. In fact, just the opposite. Every time I thought I knew where the film was going, something shifts. It feels post-screwball comedy to me.
RP: I love the screwball elements of it; those films are part of my DNA. My goal was to marry comedy with the dramatic elements.
CM: That you did. What's next for you?
RP: I'm directing a teen horror comedy called Kitchen Sink for Sony. It's really cool. And I'm co-writing a new Bugs Bunny movie with Jase Ricci. I love Looney Tunes. I'm also writing another drama. I'm always writing.
A clip from Natural Selection: