Sebastian Silva is one of the most interesting and likable filmmakers working at the moment, creating movies that are loose and relaxed, but also risky, tapping into dark secrets and deep wells of the human experience. He’s also got a knack for working with comedic performers and allowing them to play in a new realm, against type. His films “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus” and “Magic Magic” debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, both starring Michael Cera, and Silva returns to the festival this year with “Nasty Baby,” starring himself, Kristen Wiig, and Tunde Adebimpe. Again, he creates a world of amicable and fun characters that you enjoy being around, but the film takes a hard left in the last act that leaves one feeling a bit confounded about the overall story.
But first: Silva plays Freddy, an artist living with his boyfriend Mo (Adebimpe) and attempting to impregnate his best girl friend, Polly (Wiig). Freddy’s got babies on the brain and in his latest art piece, he wants to create a performance art video of himself playing a baby. He’s already got the good will of a gallerist, and a place in a group show for it. However, the insemination is just not working, and Polly is getting desperate for a sperm donor, casting around for candidates, like Mo.
The world that Silva creates is a warm, easy one, filled with Brooklyn summers and friendly neighbors, birthday parties and bbqs. When the trio of Freddy, Mo and Polly try to explain their logic about having a baby together to Mo’s family, it seems like the possibilities are endless, that all they need is their shared love to raise this baby. However, they’re really more concerned about how cute the baby will be than essentials like where it might live. And as much as it’s a charmed life, there’s a dark side to this world, too, in the form of a crazy guy, Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), who’s been bugging the whole block. At first it’s minor things like scamming a dollar off neighbor, Richard (the great Mark Margolis), and having a trash-filled stoop sale, but it escalates to using a leaf blower in the wee hours of the morning, and being way too aggressive with Polly on the street. This incident sparks a minor war between Bishop and Freddy, who has difficulty controlling his reactions to him, flying off the handle, and getting increasingly stressed out.
Silva is as great onscreen as he is off, and it’s nice to see him in a leading role (he also appeared in ‘Crystal Fairy’). His films are always family affairs, starring his siblings (and brother Agustin Silva appears here as well), so it would make sense that he would eventually take on a role such as this. It’s also nice to see Wiig at this speed and in this style — she is at home in this world, still funny, but adapting her cadence and tone to the environment. Adebimpe is a standout here, playing the stalwart and loving husband-type that he has before, but he gets to stretch more, exhibiting subtler shades of his character, who is at once trepidatious about the baby, and a gentle guiding light and rock for the volatile Freddy. Adebimpe does so much more with silence than most actors can do with reams of dialogue.
The film takes a dark turn at the end, and while the two sides of “Nasty Baby” are interesting, well-made, and well-performed, they feel like two completely different movies. Perhaps the transition should have come much earlier, and been allowed to play out longer. To ask this though, is to ask the film to be one thing or another thing, not both at the same time. Maybe it’s okay that it attempts to be both. Still, it leaves the audience unmoored and confused about how to feel. We have come to love these characters and then suddenly it is thrown into question. It’s an interesting test, but it doesn’t leave you feeling good about the story. The audience is still searching for answers that don’t quite come in a truly awesome, though kind of misplaced, roller-skating end credits sequence.
‘Crystal Fairy,’ too, turned grim at the end of a fun romp, but “Nasty Baby” amps that idea way up. It’s an interesting narrative development, if also disconcerting and confounding. Even if the turn takes the film off the rails, it’s a very well-made going off the rails that is a piece of the world that has been created. It doesn’t detract from the pleasure of a new film from Silva. “Nasty Baby” is a fine new development in his oeuvre, one that continues his themes and style, but also takes it to drastically different places. [B]