Best of Show
With Natural Selection, Jersey Village native Robbie Pickering wins big at SXSWFilm Festival
From Jersey Village to Austin by way of New York University film school: That’s the route writer-director Robbie Pickering took to arrive as the SXSW Film Festival, where his debut feature, Natural Selection, picked up the top jury and audience awards Tuesday evening.
Pickering’s indie-produced road movie, shot in and around Smithville, also claimed prizes for lead players Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary, Pickering's screenplay, Michelle Tesoro’s editing, and the musical score by iZLER and Curt Schneider.
Now comes the hard part: Finding a distributor willing to take a chance on a small movie with a big heart, that will require savvy marketing to find a receptive audience.
As I note in my Variety review, Natural Selection is an engaging offbeat comedy “that respects its characters too much to push too hard for easy laughs, even when those characters risk making complete fools of themselves.”
The plot pivots on Linda White (Harris), a fortysomething, devoutly Christian housewife who resides with Abe (John Diehl), her slightly older husband, in Jersey Village (just outside Houston). Because Linda was diagnosed years ago as barren, Abe – who’s even more devout, if not downright fanatical, in his religious beliefs -- always has refused to have conjugal relations with her. His reasoning: Fornication without the possibility of impregnation is a sin.
Given Abe’s deeply held convictions, Linda is deeply shocked — and more than a mite angry — when she discovers, shortly after he suffers a debilitating stroke, that he’s been making regular donations to a sperm bank for more than 20 years, and that he suffered his stroke during the course of his most recent, ahem, deposit.
But Linda remains a dutiful wife, and figures that, if Abe truly is knocking on heaven’s door, he should see some return on his investment. So she drives off to Tampa, hoping to track down one of Abe’s biological offspring. What she’s hoping for is a miracle. What she gets is Raymond (Matt O’Leary), a grimy, cranky, mullet-coiffed ne’er-do-well who looks and sounds like a bit player from Cops. Raymond reluctantly agrees to accompany Linda back to Jersey Village — but only because he’s being hunted by cops after his recent and entirely unauthorized departure from prison.
Believe it or not, Pickering claims Natural Selection is at least partly autobiographical. No, really, that’s his story.
“I started writing the film six years ago,” says Pickering, who was raised in the Houston suburb, “when I received a barely-intelligible-through-the-sobs call from my mother telling me that her husband – my stepfather, Bill – had terminal cancer. I took the news hard. Very soon, my mom would be alone for the first time in her life. It was almost impossible for me to conceive of the depth of isolation and solitude she would be feeling.
“I realize now that though my concern was for her welfare, I was also dealing with my own fear of death for the first time.”
Writing Natural Selection, Pickering says, “was a way of coping. I didn’t want to write about those emotions in a didactic or literal way. Rather, I tried to capture the essence and form of what I was feeling, and funneled it into a story that bears little resemblance to the literal situation my mother or I was living through.”
Natural Selection also is about the folks Pickering knew while growing up in a very religious community in Jersey Village.
“When I was a child,” he says, “I think that I saw all of these people as exaggerations of their best or worst qualities. Mostly their worst. Years later, when I wrote the script, I tried to stay true to my childhood exaggerations for humor’s sake – but also to imbue each character with a sense of humanity and depth.
“Of course, nobody would know the literal story of my stepfather’s death by just watching the film. And I think that’s the way it should be. But I hope that audiences will relate to the undercurrents of grief, loneliness, discovery, humor and eventually rebirth that drove me to write it, and devote so much of myself to its inception.
“The last thing (my stepfather) told me before he died was to take care of my mom. This is the best way I could think of doing just that.”
Natural Selection has only one more Austin screening – 4 pm Friday at the State Theatre – scheduled during SXSW. Of course, now that it’s won a passel of prizes, that could change. If you’re interested in seeing how a Jersey City boy made good, check out the SXSW website for possible additional screenings.