Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby is a deftly naturalistic portrait of the lives and social circles of three well-to-do Bohemian New Yorkers. Silva’s camera is always in motion but never jarring and the realistic dialogue overlaps in improvisatory waves. In the end, though, this naturalism is the film’s undoing. Nasty Baby‘s firm footing in reality is irrevocably upended when the screenplay forces the characters to behave in a decidedly unnatural fashion.
Artist Freddy (Silva) and his woodworker boyfriend, Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) want to have a baby and plan to do so with the help of Freddy’s best friend, Polly (Kristen Wiig), who appears to be a doctor of some kind. When Freddy’s sperm count proves too low, Mo must decide whether to step into his place. Meanwhile, Freddy and Mo’s new neighbor, a mentally unstable man who calls himself The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), antagonizes the trio with homophobic slurs and unwanted advances toward Polly.
Nasty Baby‘s biggest asset is its cast. Silva and Adebimpe are fearlessly raw with one another, while Wiig continues to impress with her devotion to every idiosyncrasy and emotional wrinkle of her characters. Cathey is a longtime pro who inverts his usual penchant for smart men with authority, making The Bishop all the more dangerous because he is neither. Veteran and always welcome character actor Mark Margolis shines as the couple’s neighbor, who serves as a reminder of what New York’s older gay population endured so that younger men like Freddy and Mo can lead a more open life. And Alia Shawkat (also a producer of the film) shows up as Freddy’s assistant, a reminder that they are no so young as they might think they are.
There’s another presence in the film; an animal one. Silva occasionally shifts into slow motion and drops the film’s sound down to a whisper while focusing on the face of another creature. A squirrel Freddy and Mo pass on their morning run; a deer who crosses the road during a drive in the country; even and especially their pet cat, whose presence is a near constant in their apartment.
Freddy’s affection for the cat is sweet and palpable but it has its limits. On occasion, when the cat is in the way of his work or bothering him while he’s trying to sleep, Freddy will pick the animal up and toss it away from him. It’s not violent and it’s a move that is probably not entirely unfamiliar to cat owners. Yet it illustrates that Freddy’s value for the lives of other beings operates on a sliding scale, depending on where his priorities lie at a given time. This is perhaps Nasty Baby‘s most potent suggestion, that we have a finite amount of love to give and that those left outside its boundaries may suffer for it. The unspoken but understood truth is that The Bishop’s aggressive presence may pose a threat to the potential new life Freddy, Mo and Polly intend to bring into the neighborhood.
This brings us to the film’s fault and its undoing. It would be unfair to ruin the way in which the conception storyline and the Bishop one come to a head but it’s at this nexus that Nasty Baby‘s naturalism is betrayed. The only way to reconcile the characters’ behavior in the final act is to decide that Silva wants us to dislike them. That’s a risky way to tell a story. It also flies in the face of the one we’ve been watching up to that point.