Suffer the Little Children: Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby”
Written on the surface of Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby is a bunch of tenuously cohesive themes and ideas – the fear of fatherhood, the adolescence of adulthood, the struggles of being an artist, gentrification – that are smudged around with red ink thrown on them for good measure to a point where those things are barely discernible at all. To some degree, there’s an admiration to be had for its audacity inasmuch as a drastic tonal shift, but its main selling point and shock value feels rather unearned at the end of the day.Also peppering this strange film – about a gay couple, Freddy (Sebastian Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) and their tentative/vehement journey to have a child with their friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig) – is a kind of self-righteous amorality and contemptuousness. Much of the film is spent trying to convince Mo to be the sperm donator, when Freddy’s sperm count is too low, and Polly continuously brings it up in conversations so as to make the situation awkward and place pressure on him. There’s a weird mixture of tone in here, something that Nasty Baby often tries to play with unsuccessfully. On one level, it’s supposed to play as somewhat absurdist; we know she shouldn’t ask so often or pace so much pressure on Mo when it’s a rather life changing decision. But the film also seems to place itself above Polly’s character and condescends to her.
In addition to this, Freddy’s role as burgeoning Avant garde artist also seems to have a kind of condescending quality to it. The big art project he works on during the film, as stress and anxiety build up on him, has him playing a baby. Literally. On the floor, crying, making sounds, playing a baby. Ostensibly an artistic statement about how people never really grow out of their childishness of youth, merely transposing their naiveté from one phase of their life to another, we are again placed above Freddy. Once again presented as absurdist, it’s too mean spirited and half-baked structurally for it to deliver.
And then there’s The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), an older, mentally ill black man who harasses people on the street they live on regularly and leaf blows at early hours of the morning. There’s very light hints that his arc could (have) be(en) about gentrification or the failure of how the United States, New York in particular, deals with patients with mental illnesses, but none of that is ever explored. Instead, The Bishop, who is also quite homophobic and racist, acts as another form of anxiety that Freddy must deal with, bringing out the worst of his inability to deal with his anger.
Much of the ideas that this film seemingly wants to examine in some substantive capacity are obfuscated by its desire to half-assedly evoke an art house/indie aesthetic: Dardennes temporal reality when following each character as they walk; the mumblecore movement’s casual dialogue; a kind of Bunuelian absurdity. Style isn’t a bad thing by any means, but the two goals in the film, if there are really any, clash with one another, sacrificing engagement.
Its performances are strong, and that’s the only thing that makes its change in tone really bearable. Weirdly, Wiig is slightly off game in the film; there are light dollops of some memorable vulnerability and frustration, but mostly the film is stacked against her. She’s not given moments in the film when that sort of complexity is allowed on screen in its fullest form, or at least a fuller form than we get.
Beyond that, the film laughs with blood in its mouth; an ironic, self-aggrandizing piece of manipulation, something even director Silva admits. Its ending is unearned misanthropy, and while I sort of appreciate the audacity to take it in the direction that it went, I resent that there’s too little textual support to justify it. IN a way, everyone in the film is a child. And children are the worst.