The third-act quashing of the cozy naturalism and pleasantry that begins Chilean writer/director/actor Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby earned the film tepid reviews in the festival circuit, from critics who weren’t pleased by what they saw as a desperate way of kickstarting an ambling narrative through genre transgression.Nasty Baby is, indeed, a film that begins like your standard Brooklyn indie; the kind you’d see a trailer for and think, “That looks nice; I’ll fall asleep to that on Netflix one night.” At its start, Nasty Baby is a film that critics might even sleepily congratulate for its nonchalant queerness and multiculturalism, if not for what they perceived to be an aimless premise. But at its close, it has more in common (do not read the following directorial comparison, or any of the following words, if you’re trying to avoid spoilers) with, say, Michael Haneke’s Caché than it does with Frances Ha.
The reason the ending (which is arguably brilliant and kinda Shakespearean in the sudden, tragic collision of many seemingly innocuous factors) may not seem to fit is because it is anomalous to the type of filmmaking that humanistically follows the tribulations of comfortable youngish people.
The film follows a trio — Freddy (Silva), Mo (TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe) and Polly (Kristen Wiig) as they try to “make a baby.” “Make” is the operative word for the trio living in their (we’ll later see, very puncturable) socially modern bohemian bubble: as Silva says to Flavorwire of the deconstructed procreation in this film, “You don’t need to fuck to make a baby; you can actually make babies because babies are like a cake essentially, like you just put some something somewhere and a baby’s created.”
As though trying out assorted recipes, the baby’s biological father could be whoever’s seminal ingredient functions: Freddy and Polly are best friends — and originally planned for the baby to biologically be theirs — but Freddy soon learns he’s sperm-ally challenged, and asks his initially reluctant boyfriend Mo if he’ll contribute, thus making a mixed race baby — which they joke that everyone in their progressive-but-baby-booming neighborhood is doing.
As Freddy has been anticipating fatherhood, for seemingly abstract and narcissistic reasons (he’s pictured staring endlessly at photos of himself as a child in the dead of night), he’s also been plotting an art project called “Nasty Baby” in which he lies naked in front of an audience and pretends to be himself as a baby. But once he finds out the (real) baby cannot be his, he decides to outsource the art project, too, seemingly as a defense mechanism against his own disappointment over the death of his narcissistic fantasy, (He tosses his former idea aside, saying, “I don’t want to be a self-absorbed freak like Marina Abramovic.”) He enlists all of his friends to infantilize themselves onscreen in a silly film collage of adult babies. When this ridiculous project is rejected by the gallery representing him, Freddy — who’s prone to tantrums — has one, and it’s only compounded by a prank phone call from Mo and Polly telling him that their last pregnancy attempt failed (so they can surprise him with the good news later).
Meanwhile, as this group of people has casually forged a sexually and racially open bohemia, they happen to be part of the systemic process colonizing working class neighborhoods — whose populations predominantly comprise people of color — based on the ever-increasing capital of NY real estate. They begin having run-ins with a man who’s clearly been fucked by the system: he’s old, black and seems debilitatingly schizophrenic — yet despite his mental illness, he appears to be living outside of care. This man, named the Bishop (played by Reg E. Cathey), begins as a nuisance to them (leaf-blowing at ungodly hours, accosting his neighbors with homophobic statements), then becomes a minor threat (he stalks and inappropriately grabs Kristen Wiig’s character, he shouts slurs at Adebimpe and Silva’s characters and finally throws a rock at the latter).
In the aforementioned Shakespearean twist, the last incident occurs on that particularly bad day of rejection and (false) procreative failure. Freddy snaps after the rock hits his back, turns around and bashes the goading Bishop in the head with a six pack; the Bishop falls to the ground — a gash opened in his scalp — and Freddy runs into his building to call for help, forgetting to lock the door. The Bishop enters, flailing a knife in Freddy’s direction, who turns it and, in an unthinking gesture, slices the Bishop’s neck open. He drags the profusely bleeding Bishop into the bathtub, just as Polly and Mo enter in celebratory spirit to announce the pregnancy. When Freddy explains the blood, then shows them the (still alive) Bishop in the tub, they realize Freddy’s too deep into it to be legally exonerated, and Polly smothers the remaining life out of the Bishop.
The whole thing plays out as a meticulous horror scene, with each character fully inhabiting the nightmare of the situation. But then, that same night, they burn the body in the woods, making both the Bishop and the problem disappear. The next morning, in the film’s last moments, they decide to go for coffee at Smooch — a Fort Greene cafe that’s something of a queer/multicultural hub. On the sidelines, on their walk over, a couple are being shown an apartment. “Post-war” — a buzzword used by real-estate agents to justify exorbitant prices in formerly working class neighborhoods — is one of the last words we hear in the film. Kristen Wiig is pregnant. The trio will have the baby in this “all-accepting” haven they’ve created — in part through the disappearance of another population.
And yet, Silva never moralizes by making them seem like repulsive people in the first two-thirds. All three friends are seemingly — perhaps barring Silva’s character’s more impatient and self-absorbed edge — cool people. As Silva told Flavorwire, “You stretch that so much, the relationship the audience and these three people have that for the audience, it’s really hard to judge them when they commit the crime, even though what they do is so repulsive and they deserve to go to jail.”
These are characters we come to enjoy — their comfort has become our comfort, their liberal values are our liberal values — and so seeing them commit murder in the final scene is especially upsetting, as it almost aims to make the audience feel complicit. “I don’t hate on Freddy, I don’t hate on Mo at all,” says Silva. “I’m not demonizing hipsters, if you’d call them that, at all. The gentrified and the gentrifier are both victims of something systemic. It’s not that these young people with a little more income are evil people that are like displacing people on purpose.”
Silva is even empathic toward Freddy, as he is all his characters, even at their most, well, murderous — saying he doesn’t “judge the reasons why people want to have kids.” Freddy’s desire is to see himself superimposed on another individual, as is shown in one scene where he frighteningly photoshops his own face on top of a photo of a baby. Are Freddy’s idealized visions of a child resembling himself — and then eventually his friends, when his project shifts — not also a form of cultural narcissism? Casting himself and his friends as the babies — as the next generation — it makes it clear that in order to create the “open,” queer bohemian world they want to live in, they subconsciously, and at times understandably, must exclude the rest of the less accepting world — to surround themselves by political/lifestyle facsimiles of themselves. But they just so happen to be doing it in a place where other people lived, first. Silva meticulously makes his main characters smart and from appearances unbigoted — and quite cynically finds how even without blatant bigotry on their part, a system could set these characters and the Bishop (who’s at once the victim of discrimination and, with his homophobia, a perpetuator of it) up to attack one another.
Of baby-making, Silva says, “I do feel that having somebody that resembles your features is pretty fucking magical, to be completely honest. You can say it’s selfish, but to make somebody and then all of sudden it really looks like you, it’s gotta be an epiphany. It’s also a sort of a fear of staying alone, you know, because kids will be there when you die, and what if you don’t have anybody? Will your nieces and nephews care for you as the gay uncle? Maybe not as much.”
The film shows the legitimate desire of its characters to safely start a nontraditional family, knowing the pervasiveness of various levels of homophobia. Meanwhile, he also shows how this notion collides with how “safety” to the bourgeois is often lightly tinged with both classism, racism and in the case of this film, mental ableism.
“I don’t want to be the person that is like, ‘In this country…’, but just this year we witnessed police forces killing black kids in front of cameras — stuff that is recorded and is on record — and they still get away with it, like finally the day comes, and then they’re not charged with anything,” says Silva, suggesting a systemic tendency to let “underprivileged people disappear without consequence.”
The reason the film’s shift from indie-quaintness to new extremist sadism is so unexpected is, in large part, due to the way plotlines surrounding these types of characters usually work: typically, neo-Brooklynite narratives and dramedies with urban middle class characters form a sort of protective bubble around them. Normally, they are exempt from, say, killing — for they are too comfortable to do so — and from dying, for similar reasons: their cinematic vocabulary tends to be limited to dinners, drinks, fucks and kvetching about the three.
But just as a life can suddenly, with a bad or plain revolting impulse switch from banal dramedy to horror-drama, so too does this film pivot unsparingly. Then, because these characters have the agency to get themselves out of the horrific experience, (unlike the Bishop, who was stuck trying to survive as a neglected mentally ill man), it switches back, immediately.
In the same vein, horror films surrounding conception — like Rosemary’s Baby — are a relatively played genre. “Gayby” plotlines, by contrast, have mostly been explored with humane, bourgeois comedy hinging on jokes about jerking off into cups versus conceiving naturally (you can imagine gay characters across The Next Best Thing, Gayby and Will and Grace scrunching their noses as they imagine vaginas), or dealing — from within their lovely, bourgeois domestic environments — with questions of identity surrounding alternate pregnancy/parenting options (The Kids Are Alright, Modern Family).
Often, in these mild-mannered onscreen narratives, it does seem plausible for feelings to get hurt, for societal norms to weigh down, for egos to spike, for relationships to be potentially damaged. But as in everyday bourgeois life, there is a disconnect between comfort and the possibility of tragedy and violence that makes them seem worlds apart, despite the constant potentiality of both. Silva manifests that potentiality in one of the most upsetting final acts of a comedy-drama — where the genres are just as separate as in that hyphenated expression — ever made.