Published May 21, 2015When Nasty Baby, Sebastian Silva's latest exercise in slow-building, psychological horror, starts out, it seems like the sort of insufferable indie pap that never makes it past the marginal festival circuit for good reason. It's set in New York, features moralistic artists, has a handheld aesthetic and offers the nauseatingly banal, feel-good premise of a single woman named Polly (Kristen Wiig) deciding to have the baby of her gay best friends, Freddy (Silva) and Mo (TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe). Of course, within the context of this film and the sort of films it ultimately seems to parodying, anyone that questions or challenges this well intentioned but ultimately naïve decision is vilified.
The peripheral discussions about art installations and neighbourhood dynamics really solidify this tone, denoting characters so embedded in their own vanity that all they have to worry about is sperm count and having enough time to get in a run. But in the midst of this generic urban fluff is the hint that this world is less perfect than it seems on the surface.
Every morning, a mentally ill neighbour wakes everyone up with a leaf blower at the crack of dawn. Freddy, who is prone to outbursts, is enraged by this. Worse: this neighbour also feels compelled to police everyone's parking and harass people when they walk down the street, antagonizing Polly when she jokingly purchases an ugly lamp from him and leaves it on the street when her arms are full. Yet, for the first half of this movie, this plotline is mostly handled as a secondary annoyance that exists only to create conflict and character complexity.
Smartly, Silva layers this annoyance with other seemingly minor squabbles. Though Freddy definitely wants to impregnate his friend, Mo is less certain, which would be fine if it weren't for the fact that only Mo has reliable sperm. Freddy is also putting together a rather dreadful art installation and isn't exactly programmed to handle any sort of criticism. This integration of different elements to create a somewhat foreboding tone over the seemingly mundane is something Silva has an aptitude for; it's something he handled exceedingly well in both The Maid and Magic Magic. While nothing sweeping or melodramatic occurs, Silva captures mounting frustration with a shrewd eye, understanding alienation and having an auteur trajectory of exploring the unspoken hostilities between different cultures and class systems.
Here, the duality is that of the pretentious artists that live in urban space and the schizophrenics that are attracted to the anonymity of such a locale. Though the artists claim to be progressive and empathize with their sick neighbours, there's an underlying rage. The lower class and the mentally ill represent the imperfection of affluent ideals and harmonious far-left assertions, inadvertently challenging their worldview just by existing.
Silva also plays with the idea of creating life and what that ultimately means. Here, the juxtaposition is quite overt, with the horror of death being mirrored by the creation of life, ultimately suggesting that both acts have an equally shocking worldly force. While most narratives — and conventional thinking — ultimately celebrate procreation, Silva isn't quite as interested in painting on that broad a canvas. There's acknowledgement of narcissism and selfishness in the decision, just as there's an understanding that the road towards happiness involves eliminating the problematic elements that surround us.
Resultantly, Nasty Baby builds into a very intriguing and ultimately discomforting analysis of urban living and the privileged urban class. It also has a firm grasp on human behaviour and the tiny imperfections that go into bad decision-making and irrational outbursts. It's a fascinating and highly engaging watch that solidifies Silva as a strong and vital voice in the filmmaking world. (Versatile)