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Sundance Review: Sebastian Silva’s Tense ‘Nasty Baby’ is a Subversive Delight

Sundance Review: Sebastian Silva's Tense 'Nasty Baby' is a Subversive Delight

The follow-up to Sebastián Silva’s 2013 efforts “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” and “Magic Magic,” “Nasty Baby” follows a gay couple — Freddy (Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) — as they try to conceive a baby with their friend Polly (Kristen Wiig), deal with a neighborhood menace ambiguously named “The Bishop,” and set up Freddy’s experimental art show, all within the constraints of gentrified Brooklyn.

Freddy is a conceptual artist, fleshing out a performance art project called “Nasty Baby” for a collective art show at a local gallery. The abstract concept — which we’re preemptively confronted with at the very beginning of the film — finds him stripping his clothes and returning to a primal, infantile state. Essentially, this entails lying naked on the ground, cooing, crying, and writhing around in his best imitation of a newborn. Part of the inspiration for the project stems from Freddy’s preoccupation with conceiving a baby with his best friend and potential surrogate, Polly.

Much of the film centers around the relationships between Freddy, Mo and Polly. Freddy and Mo are longtime partners, living together in a bohemian apartment populated with lush potted greenery; Polly is Freddy’s best friend, who looks forward to raising a child with Freddy and Mo as much as they do. This unconventional family dynamic raises eyebrows with Mo’s nuclear family, whose conservative ideals provoke uncomfortable comments about “proper” child-rearing at a group dinner. In spite of this, Polly persists in her attempts to conceive, even self-fertilizing in her stay at Mo’s family’s home.

Coloring this modern and often humorous journey is the vaguely threatening presence of The Bishop, a mentally unstable neighborhood man who drives a wedge into the idyllic existence of the movie’s leads. The Bishop’s character is effective because it’s so realistic: we’ve all had that guy on our block, holding one-dollar sales on a stoop and not grasping the idea of physical boundaries around locals walking home alone at night. When the conflict with The Bishop comes to a head, it’s no surprise, but the ensuing developments are a different story. The shocking climax — as “Nasty Baby” shifts from comedic to deeply dramatic — calls into question the very tenuous division between adulthood and infancy.

The jarring tonal shift of the third act feels like more of a natural evolution than a cheap twist. Silva masterfully switches from the levity of earlier incidents to a state of wild, uneasy panic. By the time the film ends and the narrative ingredients are pulled together, the result is more than just plain nasty — it’s strange, unsettling and ambiguous.

“Nasty Baby” manages to challenge notions of violence, morality, innocence, parenthood, and responsible child-rearing with a keen disregard for audience expectations. By shattering genre conventions, Silva subverts traditional perspectives on modern adulthood and finds no easy answers in the process.

Grade: A

“Nasty Baby” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distributions.

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