Cast: Kristen Wiig, Sebastián Silva, Tunde Adebimpe, Mark Margolis, Reg E. Cathy
Director: Sebastián Silva
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If obstacles in telling stories, revealing character pathology, and upholding narrative structures are indicative of the filmmaking process in general, then director Sebastián Silva's latest film Nasty Baby throws out such expectations altogether. This is not solely due to a third act tonal shift which will likely send audiences reeling and exacerbated, but rather because Silva examines a very specific millennial narrative which feels culturally germane. The story of gay lovers Freddy and Mo (Silva and Tunde Adebimpe, respectively) living in Brooklyn attempting to have a baby with Polly (Kristen Wiig) seems on the surface to be a PC-friendly dramedy in which cultural touchstones of acceptance and inclusivity are displayed write large. However, Silva bucks convention by shooting everything in a loose, seemingly improvised style and allowing his characters to dip into morally ambiguous areas and clueless egotism. This isn't a tale of the saintly homosexual couple and their well-meaning straight gal pal roaming around NYC getting into wacky misadventures. Instead, Silva's aims are much more transgressive. Like his previous film, 2013's Crystal Fairy, there's a cross-section of humor and tragedy inherent in the makeup of Nasty Baby which gives it an unpredictable pulse.
Throughout the majority of its running time, Silva's film has a naturalistic energy and good-naturedness which somewhat offsets the fact that these are essentially privileged characters living in a gentrified neighborhood. Freddy's bohemian art projects are used as both critique and acknowledgement of Brooklyn hipsterdom; such as his obsession with creating videos in which he behaves like a rolling-on-the-ground screaming toddler. Other characters appear on the periphery; a delightfully droll Mark Margolis as a street monitor and Reg E. Cathy as a possibly homeless man named Bishop who harasses people and uses a loud leaf blower during the early morning hours. It's this latter character which initially seems like a problematic concession to revealing common stereotypes and bigotry, but Silva has more on his mind than simply riling up the audience. That Bishop is a stand-in for the liberal notion of sympathizing with "mental illness" is instructive, and Cathy's dead-on performance suggests an uneasy alliance between intellectualized empathy and practical social interaction.
Nasty Baby seems to center around the notion of creation and destruction as necessary artistic impulses. Freddy and Mo desire to create a life in order to feel accepted and normative in their respective environment. Polly wants to be a central part of creating this child because as she states countless times, her biological clock is ticking and this could be her last chance. Freddy hopes to create art to provoke and engage others into recognizing his post-modern wit, but when his methods are questioned in one humorously absurdist scene with a gallery owner, he descends into the kind of millennial depression common to so many precious souls receiving criticism these days. Meanwhile, during a trip to visit Mo's family, Freddy and Polly are visibly taken aback by the fact that some people don't agree with their plans to have a baby, much less with Freddy and Mo's homosexual lifestyle in general. This sequence, in which Mo's sister becomes increasingly upset about the scenario as the father sits at the dinner table in complete silence, says alot about the way those existing in politically correct environments are oblivious to ideologies outside their bubble.
Then, of course, there's that aforementioned third act tonal shift. Even categorizing it this way, though, highlights the flimsy nature of narrative structure to begin with. Many will see the climax as an offensive reversal of what has transpired and therefore, a complete betrayal. But does art, as a way of visualizing creation and destruction, need to follow a three-act structure which appeals to an audience's sensibilities? Are there tonal shifts in real life? Sure, and the disturbing event that closes Nasty Baby may have even been more "understandable" had it come 40 minutes earlier, but Silva isn't interested in contextualizing the horrific nature of the final moments. It is, much like so many things that happen in life, sudden and unfathomable; though there are hints along the way foreshadowing this inevitability. The way the characters act might seem unbelievable or at odds with their previous behavior, but then that presupposes that we really understand or sympathize with these people. In a way, Silva gives a big middle finger to the complacently suspect liberal audience to which his picture will likely appeal; revealing the self-congratulatory trap that films with these types of characters often easily fall into. In that sense, Nasty Baby acts as a kind of corrective to so many of the well-meaning but facile indies these days positing marginalized characters as somehow noble and above egregious human behavior.