It’s a toss-up which is more unpredictable: creative impulse when given full rein, or that same impulse when it is stymied, though, perhaps one is a little that is more dangerous than the other. The struggle, be it artistic or procreative, is the theme of Sebastian Silva’s NASTY BABY, a modern fable about family, friendship, and the need to bring something to life.
Silva himself plays Freddy, a working artist whose new direction is a video piece designed to capture his guilt over wanting to make a baby with his best friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig), rather than adopt one that is already here. The pitch to a sublimely ennui-esque gallery owner (Neal Huff) only lands when Freddy explains that the guilt will be expressed through self-humiliation, with Freddy, naked as the day he was born, pretending to be a 3-month-old baby. The elation is short-lived as Freddy learns that he is not, shall we say, packing right stuff to cure Polly’s baby fever, and so they turn to Freddy’s boyfriend, Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) for a donation. A donation, though, that Mo is not entirely certain he wants to make, even to make the lives complete of the two people in the world to whom he is closest.
Silva tells his story without the baggage of exposition. The three friends are presented without a backstory as such. Hints about their history, separate and together, are dropped with the sort of tantalizing clue that occur in the normal course of social interaction. Freddy’s worries about being like his own father, Mo’s unconditional support, and the way the three of them can fall into bed when they’re tired the way a litter of puppies collapse into a sleeping pile.
As the film progresses, Freddy’s frustrations multiply. The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), the homeless man on Freddy’s street, gets under his skin more so than either Polly’s or Mo’s, despite the sheer looming bulk that violates Polly’s boundaries, and the leaf blower at 7am that wakes up both Freddy and Mo. Confrontations escalate, egged on by Richard (Mark Margolis), Freddy and Mo’s old-school gay neighbor, while unsettling family issues , in the form of a visit by the trio to Mo’s distant family, bubble up and bring with them unexpected changes.
There is a wondrous sense of spontaneity to the action, and not just in the unselfconscious way conversations begin and end with an unpremeditated esprit. There is also the simulacrum of how life refuses to confine itself to expectations, either of the characters on screen, or we in the audience, and yet still, as a whole, evinces an inescapable internal logic. Comedy, tragedy, drama, farce are all there and are all equally true when their turn comes, and this is because of a cast that is perfectly in touch with the essential, and messy, humanity of their characters. It is the very element of surprise that makes them compelling, that and the ability to come up with such whimsical turns of phrase as “semen vampire.”
It is a stroke of Silva’s genius that he uses the metric of their relationship with The Bishop to gauge their ongoing struggle with the other elements of their lives. He establishes The Bishop’s mental illness, and his harmlessness, aside from those boundary issues, and then contrasts it with their compassion, childishness, their tenderness, and the growing sense not just of unease, but also of impatience at having to put up with the constant confrontations. There are limits, and they don’t so much damn them, as define them.
A word about Kristen Wiig. She gives another in a string of phenomenal performances here. Not to minimize the work of the other actors, but the woman’s sheer power in THE SKELETON TWINS, WELCOME TO ME, and in her breakout film, BRIDESMAIDS, makes me stand in awe of her. Fearless, passionate, and with a rare gift for combining heartbreak and dignity with a finely tuned sense of the absurd, she is one of the most arresting actors working in film today.
The profoundness of NASTY BABY has nary a trace of stuffiness or pedantry. This is an engrossing film that is as original as it is thought-provoking in how it will challenge your complacency.