'Nasty Baby': Sundance Review

A small, at first docile, then provocative story of alternative lifestyles in Brooklyn.

Kristen Wiig plays a woman who gets pregnant with the help of a gay couple in director Sebastian Silva's drama

What seems destined at the outset to be a stultifyingly politically correct indie about a gay male Brooklyn couple — Latino and black — helping a single white woman get pregnant by supplying the sperm turns into a startling drama of extreme moral ambiguity in Nasty Baby. Anyone who's seen the previous work of Chilean expat writer-director Sebastian Silva knows that he’s going to closely examine what’s on the underside of the rock, not just on top of it, although here he waits to turn it over until very late in the game. Pleasantly involving and sometimes annoying throughout most of its running time, this is also a vibrant, thoughtful piece about modern life in a very particular gentrified neighborhood. A small film shot in a rough-and-ready hand-held style, it can benefit from co-star Kristen Wiig’s name to achieve a bit of initial exposure but will generally remain limited to niche theatrical situations.

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Nasty Baby is the first feature Silva has made since moving to the United States after having made two mostly English-language films with Michael Cera in Chile, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy, both of which played at Sundance in 2013. The director co-stars here as Freddy, a video installation artist who’s soon informed that he should give up trying to help impregnate close friend Polly (Wiig) because his sperm count is too low. He therefore proposes that his partner Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) take over, a suggestion that is met with a pronounced lack of enthusiasm.  So far, this could be an episode on just about any TV sitcom today, right down to the squirm-inducing, rolling-on-the-floor-pretending-to-be-a-baby videos Freddy makes of himself.

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The guys’ apartment is one of those quasi-bohemian places where people are always coming and going, hanging out and playing music, and Silva doesn’t even bother to identify who some of them are. Then there are the colorful local characters, notably de facto neighborhood street monitor Richard (the always welcome and wonderful Mark Margolis) and, problematically, an unpleasant older man who calls himself The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), yells at and hassles people, is always angry and personally annoys Freddy by using a loud leaf blower every morning at 7 a.m.

With little story other than the thread involving Polly’s efforts at pregnancy (why she doesn’t look elsewhere for a donation is never broached), the film skips along at a fairly brisk clip, Silva’s observant, in-the-moment camera style catching little glimpses of life the way a sharp-eyed still photographer might: A pet cat cautiously tapping at Freddy’s head while he’s in the bath, Richard never missing a beat about happenings on the street, the guys helping prop Polly’s legs up against a wall to help the semen on its way once she gets a fresh donation, the fear on the street at night when pedestrians sense The Bishop’s presence, the pretentions of the art gallery curator when Freddy goes to present his project.

An arresting scene shows Mo’s family has having a bigger problem than anyone else with the idea of a gay lifestyle and sperm donation; his sister gets more livid about it as the dinner progresses, while his father chooses not to utter a word.

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Thus does Silva quietly project the notion that people who live in politically correct cocoons  such as Brooklyn naturally assume that everyone thinks the same way about such things.

But, morally speaking, the film has much bigger fish to fry than that. The film in its final stretch takes a very nasty left turn down a dark and perilous road to a place none of the characters has ever visited before, physically or figuratively. Without giving anything away, the climax calls into question what kind of people these are that we’ve been watching and what any given person might be capable of doing in extremis. Silva sticks it to a comfortable, complacent and presumably morally liberal audience with his finale and twists the knife, to thought-provoking ends. If the film at the beginning is explicitly about life and creating it, at the end it’s also about just as consciously taking it away.

The unsteady, quasi-home video quality of the proceedings is initially uninviting but becomes less grating after a while, albeit the night and darkly lit scenes remain problematic. The performances are naturalistic, accessible and likable; there’s no heavy thespian-style acting going on here. The soundtrack offers a kaleidoscopic array of mostly flavorsome tunes.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Production: Fabula, Funny Balloons, Versatile

Cast: Sebastian Silva, Tunde Adebimpe,, Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat, Mark Margolis, Reg E. Cathey, Agustin Silva, Neal Huf, Lillias White, Anthony Chisolm

Director: Sebastian Silva

Screenwriter: Sebastian Silva

Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain, Charlie Dibe, David
Hinojosa, Julia Oh

Executive producers: Peter Danner, Pape Boye, Violaine Pichon,
Sebastian Silva, Christine Vachon

Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong

Production designer: Nico Arze

Costume designer: Mark Grattan

Editor: Sofia Subercaseaux

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

101 minutes