First published by Sight & Sound, May 2016
Review: “You’re always crossing boundaries. People have boundaries.”
These words are addressed to the chief antagonist of Nasty Baby, a noisy, belligerent, grope-happy homophobe known as ‘The Bishop’ (Reg E. Cathey) who keeps invading the personal space of his more gentrified, hipster neighbours. Yet if this mentally challenged giant is essentially a demanding, irritant manchild, there are other adult babies in his Brooklyn ‘hood who might equally lay claim to the film’s title.
‘Nasty Baby’ is also the name of an art project that Freddy, played by writer/director Sebastián Silva (The Maid, 2009; Magic Magic, 2013), is seen pitching to an inner city gallery owner in the opening scene. Planning to make a baby with his boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) and their friend Polly (Kristen Wiig), Freddy explores his conflicted feelings on parenthood by filming himself grotesquely mimicking a big baby. As he invites more and more of his friends and colleagues to play at being infants before the camera, his video art becomes a reflex for Silva’s itself, which also enables us to observe all this community at its most irresponsible and impulsive. The Bishop may circle the lives of Freddy and his friends as a constant irritant, even a genuine threat, but as he tests their limits they too are found wanting. One of Freddy’s friends blithely sideswipes the Bishop with his car, oblivious to the impact. Freddy himself, prone to outbursts of anger, stalks the Bishop back to his home address, and later, as part of a childish prank, leads a raiding party to throw a stink bomb into the Bishop’s house (with consequences that even he admits are “kind of not that funny”). The violence that Freddy will eventually enact against the Bishop may be partly in self-defence, but Freddy’s capacity for destructive rage was there from the start.
Silva may, like the character he is playing, be a gay Brooklynite working in the audiovisual arts, but despite an opening textual claim to be “based on a true story”, the central plot of Nasty Baby (Polly’s troubled impregnation, the feud with Bishop) is pure fiction. As with Silva’s Crystal Fairy (2013), the cast improvised their dialogue from a loose outline, and the result is a freewheeling, slightly meandering hangout movie in which boundaries are not just crossed, but repeatedly redrawn. Where Freddy and Mo’s mixed-race gay marriage, and their attempts to have a baby with Polly, are viewed from the inside as entirely normal, Silva occasionally introduces the tension of outside perspectives (like those of Bishop and Mo’s sister), which see only transgression in the trio’s conduct. Similarly, while we are invited to keep company with this threesome and their friends for the film’s duration, our sympathies become compromised both by what they do, and how quick they are to bury any moral accountability. Over the final credits, Freddy and Polly rollerdisco away, unbounded and carefree like little, not quite innocent children – with the repeated lyric “let me think about it” urging the reflection that they lack.
Synopsis: Brooklyn, New York. As artist Freddy tries artificially inseminating his best friend Polly, he also works through conflicted feelings about parenthood with a video entitled ‘Nasty Baby’. When Freddy proves infertile, he and Polly turn to Freddy’s live-in boyfriend Mo who, despite initial reluctance, eventually agrees – while the three are visiting his out-of-town family – to provide his sperm. Meanwhile tensions escalate between these brownstone-inhabiting hipsters and a mentally disturbed, homophobic neighbour – calling himself ‘The Bishop’ – whose passive aggression and lack of personal boundaries rattle everyone. After the Bishop manhandles Polly in the street, Freddy and his friends throw a stink bomb into the Bishop’s basement flat, in a prank that gets out of hand. Freddy’s completed video is not well received by an inner-city gallery owner, and on the same day, in another prank gone wrong, Mo and Polly trick Freddy into believing that Polly’s impregnation by Mo has failed. Downcast on his way home, Freddy is verbally abused and stoned by the Bishop, and retaliates by hitting his assailant with a six-pack. When the Bishop tries to knife Freddy, Freddy stabs him in the throat. After Polly and Mo return, a distraught Freddy suffocates the Bishop. Helped by both Freddy’s younger brother Chino and their older gay neighbour Richard, they burn and bury the Bishop’s body, and clean up all evidence that he was there. Freddy, Mo and pregnant Polly walk the neighbourhood, stopping to admire a friend’s baby.
© Anton Bitel