It may take a village to raise a child, but it also takes one to clean up a particularly heinous mess. Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby oscillates between these two ideas with a strange mix of hipster angst, melodrama and dark comedy. Initially, the film appears to be a compassionate and subdued examination of modern family rituals and disappointments. But like its lead characters’ communication style, that’s all bullshit.
Emerging artist Freddy (Silva) lives with his carpenter boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) in a comfortable New York City brownstone populated with countless ferns and plants. The traditional medium of painting no longer interests him, so it’s on to visual arts. His first video installation will feature adults posing and cooing like babies, presumably to say something about the lasting nature of innocence. Keeping with the newborn theme, Freddy has been donating his sperm to best friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) who hopes to get pregnant.
Like most of Silva’s films, the setup is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and things turn increasingly acidic. Freddy’s sperm count is low, which prompts Polly to ask for Mo’s participation, causing distress in the relationship. Heated conversations turn even more stressful when a mentally unsound homophobic neighbor named The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey) begins to harass the couple on the street.
Internally, a pervasive sense of unease grows in each character as nothing goes according to plan. When Freddy and Polly join Mo and his family for dinner, the welcome wagon is painted blood red. Later, Freddy gets into an argument with a gallery owner over his amateurish project. This disagreement leads directly into the film’s insane final act.
Nasty Baby believes that each of us hide behind façades in order to avoid a well of secrets. Setting it apart from other suburban morality tales is its strange and unnerving tone. Freddy, Mo, and Polly are on the precipice of parenthood, but none of them really understands the consequences of what that means. Polly is especially panicked about possibly having missed her window to procreate.
Silva’s oeuvre is stock full of selfish characters, and his whiny, tantrum-loving Freddy mirrors Michael Cera’s obnoxious lead character in the equally oddball road movie The Crystal Fairy. Except Freddy’s first-world privilege stems from an assumption of comfort, an expectation of success that has been bred into him over the years. Whether that can be attributed to his upbringing or artistic prowess (or a combination of the two) we never can tell.
Polly’s travails and The Bishop’s tirades teach us that Freddy’s sequestered world view can be shattered in an instant. Mo has made himself culpable in this delusion by enabling his partner’s judgmental attitude and pretentious view of the “other.” Short bursts of anger and frustration eventually erupt in an act of violence that seems both surprising and preordained. What follows gives Nasty Baby a whole new spin on its title. Some may be taken aback by the narrative shift, but considering how frequently Freddy, Mo and Polly deny the truth it makes perfect sense.
There’s one motif in Silva’s work that’s worth mentioning over the others: Anger and resentment are natural elements of human nature that some of us learn how to manage in productive ways while others wait and wait until our lids blow off.
Nasty Baby, which opens Friday, Oct. 30, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, stands out as a particularly cynical view of learned behavior. Countless shots of cute tykes are juxtaposed with adults who’ve done everything possible to hide the venom lingering inside. It prompts the question, how can we start so innocently and end up so rotten? People find a way.