Imagine if Noah Baumbach’s WHILE WE’RE YOUNG had an illegitimate child and decided to keep it locked away in the attic only to occasionally feed it fish heads and allow it to howl at the moon. That child would later mature to be NASTY BABY. Perhaps that is slightly harsh, but Sebastián Silva’s jagged edged feature which pokes holes in the middle class, stabs violently at the NYC art world, creates a collision course between race and culture, and even unearths the mythos of the hipster homosexual couple has quite a bit to say about the state of our current society. Babies are seen as status symbols, especially mixed-race families, the homeless or discarded are feared versus helped, and gentrification offers its warm embrace around every turn.
Silva’s feature is not easy to view, but much like its aggressive trailer that begins with a sensation of love, offering a warm lens towards our lead characters, ultimately thrusting us violently into a flashing red and white title card with an impending voice announcing the title – NASTY BABY – it is important film. I have not seen Silva’s prior work like CRYSTAL FAIRY & THE MAGICAL CACTUS or MAGIC MAGIC (both featuring Michael Cera), but NASTY BABY demonstrated that I should work backwards to discover Silva’s full body of work.
It begins as a love story. A relationship eager to move to the next level invites a close friend, Polly (played by the never type-cast Kristen Wiig (see WELCOME TO ME)) to have their child. Through failed attempts at insemination and this looming question of purpose (is this decision to expand Mo and Freddy’s world, or for Polly’s social NYC status?), an awkward family dinner finally makes the decision, but NASTY BABY only begins at that moment. Instead of engulfing our characters with that one specific dilemma, it instead pushes the walls of our trio’s worlds. From jagged insights into the NYC art scene involving baby videos and Michael Jackson to pushing further into the exterior with harsh criticisms on the homeless who inhabit the outside of their apartment to pushing to their concrete walls with fears of failure and deportation, and to be honest, the film doesn’t stop there. Layers upon layers are developed as Silva unwraps this unsuspecting story. Each of our players develop, form their own roots, and react accordingly to each situation presented – such as an aggressive stranger on the streets, an avalanche of terrible news, and finally the fear of the unknown. To say much more may be the thread you would need to unravel the plot, and the third act will come as a shock, despite any spoilers that you may read.
Wiig continues to impress with her choice of roles, never quite settling for merely the comedic type. Silva surprisingly not only helms this project, but steps in front of the camera gracefully demonstrating compassion, friendship, and the animalistic consequences of his actions. The surprise for me was Tunde Adebimpe who played Mo, a man caught in the middle of life and friendship. His quiet nature commanded the screen and built a compassionate bridge between Wiig and Silva. His actions and then subsequent reactions in the third act glue this film together. Yet, as the actors follow-through the steps it is Silva’s direction, his ability to never quite make you feel comfortable (whether it is the baby videos, Mo’s family, the cat, or the now-jarring reaction I have to a leaf blower) as well as symbolic cut-scenes of how close we all stand next to nature and our animalistic ways, may be one of the strongest seen this year.
NASTY BABY is not a perfect film, nor is it one that you leave the theater suggesting it to everyone you meet on the street, but what NASTY BABY lacks in recommendation, it makes up for with conversation. Discussions grew like wildflowers as our theater’s lights went up, and a hesitant, but proud clap filled the generously filled room. I believe folks were stunned, as I was, but what we just witnessed. Scenes that stood out as I revisit this feature in my mind is the white deer caught in the headlights as well as in Freddy’s mind as our trio contemplate their actions. The entire moment where Freddy finds out about his art and the gallery owner introduces us to a decision-maker known as THE ORACLE. The entire discovery and primer on Bishop, from where he lives, his family, to his role within this community, and how he ultimately changes the course of our world. In fact, one could argue that the pregnancy is merely a red herring towards the path of Bishop. Interesting.
NASTY BABY is a film experience you are likely not to forget. To say that I “enjoyed” the film would be misleading, but I did feel enveloped by Silva’s scathing look at the world today. Absolutely there is love, but love comes in all shapes and sizes, in both good and evil. From coffee shops, wood workshops, and pretentious birthday parties, NASTY BABY had everything you wanted to hate. This film surprised me, and I hope others look beyond the trailer and see this original story.