The Chilean-born, New York-based Sebastian Silva (The Maid, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus) is one of the more original filmmakers working today, and Nasty Baby (currently playing at the Music Box) offers ample proof of his talents. The film feels like few other comedies I’ve seen, sustaining a nervous energy that gives it the air of psychological horror even when relatively little is taking place. The unaccountable tone is exhilarating—you never know what’s going to happen next, and you watch the film in a state of constant suspense. This suspense extends to Silva’s handling of character: the subjects of Nasty Baby are alternately monstrous and sympathetic, and Silva keeps the audience in flux as to how to read them.
The film remains ambiguous even through the final credits, which play over a strangely exuberant sequence of the main characters skating at a roller rink. This passage, like many others, convey Silva’s excitement over making movies, capturing the raw energy of life and leaving it to viewers to draw their own conclusions. Often shooting in shallow focus, Silva places the audience in the characters’ immediate vicinity, a method of obscuring any sort of context for their behavior. His jumpy editing heightens the effect by creating an arhythmic pulse that keeps the movie skipping forward; the accomplished style isn’t noticeable at first, since Silva elicits such naturalistic performances from his cast. It often feels as if the movie is just falling together, despite the fact that it’s impeccably plotted.
Nasty Baby invokes the films of the French New Wave not only in its ambitious mix of genres, but in its sensitivity to the zeitgeist. The movie centers on a nontraditional family that’s trying to conceive a child: artist Freddy (Silva), his boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio), and their best friend Polly (Kristen Wiig). The film is forthright in its depiction of family planning, showing in detail the complications that arise in the trio’s project. Freddy wants to be the biological father, but his sperm count is too low for Polly to conceive. After accepting that he can’t be the sperm donor, he tries to convince Mo to assume the role, but Mo, who’s black, has apprehensions about raising a mixed-race child. His worries are rarely addressed outright, but they influence the characters all the same, adding to the complexity of their situation.
Silva also raises the question of whether these characters should be parents at all. Freddy comes off as particularly obnoxious—he’s an entitled creative type who treats the world as his playground, behaving provocatively in order to get a rise out of the people he encounters. Polly at first seems just as immature—note the way she clowns around with Freddy, as though they were a couple of grade-schoolers. Mo, who seems the most grown-up of the three, tends to stand outside their foolishness, though he often enables it. Midway through the film he agrees to take part in Freddy’s ridiculous art project in which various grown-ups record themselves acting like babies. The project, Freddy explains, is meant to convey his mixed feelings about becoming a parent—but it seems indulgent, an expression of not wanting to grow up.
Despite the characters’ faults, however, one never questions their affection for one another. There’s warmth in Nasty Baby‘s depiction of the characters’ relationship, which is rooted in honesty and comfort. (The film is by no means a straightforward critique of hipster entitlement a la Rick Alverson’s The Comedy.) One recognizes a sense of wonder in the characters’ playful behavior, even when it makes others uncomfortable. These people are curious about the world around them—they want to experiment with traditional adult roles and create something new. What the results will be are anybody’s guess. Nobody seems entirely sure of what they’re doing, yet Silva makes it clear that they’re acting out of a sense of optimism.
The film introduces a challenge to the characters’ optimism in the person of the Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), a mentally ill man who lives on the same block as Freddy and Mo. Whereas Freddy and Polly play at being difficult, the Bishop is the real deal, awkwardly confronting people on the street and following them even when they try to avert him. He also has the habit of running a loud leaf blower in the morning, which irritates Freddy to no end. The principal characters’ trouble with the Bishop comes to disrupt the family-planning narrative, as they try unsuccessfully to stop him from aggravating the neighborhood but only provoke him to further, more unsettling outbursts. This conflict, which could be the stuff of simpleminded social commentary, becomes a complicated dilemma in Silva’s hands. Do Freddy, Mo, and Polly possess a responsibility for this unhinged neighbor? Should they confront his disturbing behavior, get authorities involved, or just leave him be? Silva challenges viewers to consider what they might do in the same situation, and this questioning approach brings Nasty Baby, unexpectedly, into the realm of serious moral inquiry.