"Nasty Baby" introduces us to a trio of
sympathetic characters. We come to understand their motives, hopes and fears,
find ourselves rooting for them to overcome those doubts in order to achieve
those dreams, and grow to really like them. Then, that happens.
The "that" is a third-act move that is sure to
be divisive. One could see it as a twisted-knife culmination of the motivations
and less-than-admirable qualities of these characters, or one could see it as a
betrayal of the audience's trust. It's both, really, and above whatever desire
one might have to qualify the film's climax as either a logical conclusion or an
act of cheating, it is a daring, radical shift in tone and intention that
Writer/director Sebastián Silva doesn't cheat in terms of
storytelling, though. Throughout the film, he sets up these characters, and us, for what happens. We suspect something could go wrong, but Silva
distracts us with the sweet, charming story of three people trying to find
happiness under tough circumstances.
Since we want these characters to be happy, Silva
essentially makes us accomplices to what unfolds late in the film, because,
even under the specific conditions of the climax, happiness is the
ultimate goal. That's especially true when it is so, so close to being
achieved, and that's the point at which Silva forces these characters to decide,
once and for all, which way it's going to go. In the process, he challenges us
to say with certainty that we would behave any better under similar
circumstances and with that much at stake. One can hope.
The stakes that become so vital in the third act are just
romantic concepts for these characters at the start, and they treat them with uncertainty.
Freddy (Silva, whose appearance as one of the central characters further
convinces us of the film's claim to be "based on a true story"—up to
a point, of course) and his boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) live together in a
New York City apartment. They have decided to become parents. Freddy's best
friend Polly (Kristen Wiig), who also wants to have a baby, will be the
surrogate mother and have a role in raising the child.
Freddy is an artist. He's currently preparing a video
piece, featuring him acting like a baby, in order to assuage his guilt over what
he sees as a selfish act—wanting a child of his own when there are so many
children who could be adopted. Still, he desperately wants to be a father, and
late in the night, he stares at his phone, looking at photos of himself as a
child and imagining what his own child might look like. If Freddy's desire to
have a child is selfish, then surely his desire to publicize his guilt is a
form of self-indulgence. There's no avoiding that this emotional entitlement
plays a significant role in what comes to pass.
Freddy has a low sperm count, though, so he must convince
Mo to donate his own sperm. Mo is hesitant, and it seems like a lost
cause. Meanwhile, a new resident on the block, who calls himself "The
Bishop" (Reg E. Cathey), has been making life miserable with his habit of
using a leaf-blower in the early morning hours, as well as some other, less
Silva's screenplay has a slice-of-life feel; Sergio
Armstrong's cinematography provides the natural lighting and handheld camerawork that adds to
that sensation. Not much happens here in terms of actual plot points, but
these day-to-day observations of the trio's activities give us a good feeling for
these characters and their slowly solidifying relationship.
Part of Mo's hesitation is that he still considers Polly
to be Freddy's friend—not so much his. There's a natural rapport between the
old friends, and Mo's shift toward seeing Polly in a different way begins with
a passing observation—Mo watches the kindness with which Polly treats a physically abused woman who comes into the clinic where Polly works.
Mo is a calming agent for Freddy, who has anger
management problems, and Adebimpe's performance has a similar effect upon the
film. He's a sturdy presence, balancing Polly's continual disappointment at the
failure to conceive and Freddy's frustrated indecisiveness. Wiig and Silva are
solid, too, as both actors convey a genuine sense of longing for a dream that
is constantly deferred.
The culmination of the threesome's new normal arrives in
a surprisingly tender scene that immediately follows a tense dinner with Mo's
family—some of whom still have some qualms about Mo's life. This delicate scene portrays
what is essentially a medical procedure, but Silva imbues it with a sense of
intimacy through simple framing (Polly's face shares half of the frame in the
foreground, as Freddy and Mo do their part for the procedure in the other half).
The actors play it without a trace of discomfort.
It's worth noting, by the way, that the character who
eases the tension in the earlier scene at the dinner table is the one we least
suspect. Details such as that one are key to the impact of the film's climax.
Silva repeatedly sets up some kind of barrier or stumbling block for these
characters, only to resolve it with humor (Freddy's failure at an art gallery
results in a moment of utter absurdity) or an optimistic view of humanity.
The method is so effective that we expect a similar
result once those climactic events begin. Surely there will be some out for
these characters. Surely it won't go as far as we fear. Surely goodness will
prevail somehow. Surely happiness shouldn't come at such a cost. Whether we
like it or not, "Nasty Baby" is defiant in how it doesn't sway
from these ultimate acts of selfishness.