I’d like to think that if I was a teenager who knew that his friend was going to commit a school shooting, the first thing I would do would be to immediately inform the police. Then I would tell the school administrators, then as many of my classmates as I could. There are three things that I wouldn’t do.
First, I wouldn’t send nothing but a cryptic note reading “Absolution for the past, make the call, make it count” to the school’s sole security officer.
Second, I wouldn’t write write a letter pronouncing my possible martyrdom to my worried, alcoholic mother.
Third, I wouldn’t wait until school starts the day of the shooting to confront him completely unarmed.
But I guess that’s why I don’t make movies. All three things happen in Chad L. Scheifele’s Natural Selection, a confused, misguided attempt at a teen drama. It swaps between two sulky, bullied protagonists. The first is Tyler (Mason Dye), a 17 year old who looks suspiciously like the jocks you would find in direct-to-TV 90s movies. After moving to a new school with his mother, he becomes friends with Indrid (Ryan Munzert), a quiet, perpetually pissed off young man with serious authority issues. They’re both sad and “misunderstood.” We know this about Tyler because he likes playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on a piano in an empty auditorium. We know this about Indrid because of the oversized poster of Nietzsche hanging in his bedroom.
For most of its runtime the film has little idea what to do with them. Tyler navigates his new school and falls in love with a beautiful girl named Paige (Katherine McNamara) who seems drawn to him for no explained reason. At home he struggles to keep his mother from drowning at the bottom of a bottle. In fairness, these scenes are the film’s most emotionally honest, feeling reminiscent of Gerard Barrett’s Glassland (2014) in its depiction of a beleaguered, exhausted son trying to save the intoxicated husk that was once their mother.
Indrid spends this time airing out his misanthropy. He gets into fights at school and taunts classmates who bring up the issue of God during lectures. In a scene that feels aped from The Silence of the Lambs (1991), he psychologically torments the school’s security guard, using information about his tragic home-life to establish dominance over him. Finally he manipulates Tyler, lying to him about his peers and, in a crucial scene, destroying notes left by his inebriated mother about how much she loves him. He obviously wants Tyler to hate the world as much as he does, but why? Why does he care so much about Tyler, a young man with the charisma of wallpaper paste?
The last third sees Tyler wise up to Indrid’s nonsense, reconcile with Paige after a cringe-worthy misunderstanding, and try to stop Indrid from killing everyone at their school. It’s here that Tyler carries out the ridiculous three steps I mentioned above. Within the context of the story, these steps may have seemed appropriate, perhaps even poetic. But they simply aren’t things that would happen in real life. Here we see the main problem with Natural Selection: it tries to be much more meaningful and intelligent than it is, wanting to make sweeping statements about humanity and cruelty but the end only manages to trip over its own contrived, soap opera dramatics.