The latest film from Sebastián Silva, Nasty Baby is a 1970s Woody Allen movie for the hipster generation. The existential, chain-smoking intellectuals of Manhattan are displaced by scooter-riding conceptual artists, who drink out of mason jars, fill gentrified apartments with potted plants and go rock climbing in Brooklyn. A poignant, heartfelt and ultimately troubling moral tale, it revolves around a gay couple – Silva as Freddy and Tunde Adebimpe his partner, Mo – and their closest female friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig). The bohemian trio are attempting to conceive in the most non-traditional of ways but with Freddy firing blanks the responsibility falls on Mo, who is uncertain about becoming a father.
Deftly drawing in issues of fertility, homosexuality, race and mental illness, Silva turns a seemingly peaceful street, and an extremely personal story, into a microcosmic battleground, reflective of far- reaching and deep-seated prejudices. What, in 2016, constitutes a normal family unit? What guidelines, if any, should be imposed on the raising of a child in a loving, nurturing environment?
Although he appears within it as a failing artist, Silva’s directorial creation is pitch perfect. Each step of the way is imbued with an intimacy and immediacy by the handheld camerawork of Sergio Armstrong as we walk a tightrope between humour, genuine sentimentality and bitter disappointment. Beneath this, a sinister undercurrent bubbles ever so slowly to an unexpected boiling point. Superbly acted by all involved, each character is fully fleshed out but questions do remain as to certain motivations and inner conflicts felt by individuals who we come to care a great deal for. With elements of the plot plucked directly from Silva’s own life, as much as is said in Nasty Baby, through wonderfully improvised dialogue, an equivalent amount of intrigue is left unspoken. Principally, why has Polly chosen to have a child with Freddy and Mo, eschewing a more conventional family dynamic?
Just as the director requests narrative unknowns be accepted, so does he the notion of a gay couple wanting to raise a child. In a significant cameo role, Mark Margolis features as Richard, a gay man generations ahead of Freddy and Mo but a long way behind them in terms of the opportunities afforded him. A toast to their future and his past is one of many strikingly bittersweet moments. The one figure who will not accept homosexuality, and the chief cause of disturbance in the urban idyll, is The Bishop, a self-titled harbinger of irritation and violent prejudice. Played with unnerving menace by Reg E. Carthey, he is undoubtedly a few church-goers short of a full congregation but he acts as an outspoken counterpoint to the general air of liberal acceptance.
As vulgar and reprehensible as his views may be, Bishop is still a black, homeless man in desperate need of help but cast aside by the system. Callous neighbours who care little for troubles outside their own look upon him as no more than a pitiful nuisance. His treatment reflects a breakdown in community spirit, and while Nasty Baby is forward-thinking in many respects it does not forget other marginalised groups who remain downtrodden and ill-treated in modern Western society. A simple-minded act of what could be intended as kindness is instead interpreted as aggression, setting the final act’s moral compass spinning out of control. Nasty Baby builds to a crescendo of debate-sparking ambiguity and a question of whether ends justify all means. Audiences will be left reeling by what is a surprisingly chilling and thought-provoking film.