There’s a certain kind of privilege that Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby takes aim at. It’s not specific to any particular race or gender nor is it linked to a kind of generational entitlement, i.e. it does not admonish “millennial” tendencies. No, Nasty Baby is a film about its milieu; where a New York City street serves as a sampling size of the metropolitan concerns that pervade nearly every Chicago street I’ve ever lived on. The issue here is gentrification and in this nasty film about the perceived entitlement of middle-class prospectors, we see Silva utilize conventional melodramatic devices to misdirect, if not ultimately highlight, the privilege of those who have and those who do not.
Freddy (Sebastián Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) want to have a child. Polly (Kristen Wiig), one of Freddy’s closest friends, is eager to oblige. There’s a narrative, of sorts, that suggests that this will be film about the complications of fatigued acceptance, as Freddy’s low sperm count prevents him from impregnating Polly (plan A), whereby Mo is urged to become the child’s father (plan B). Mo’s reticence to become a father, Polly’s overzealousness (she imposes stringent deadlines on the two men to come to a decision; her desire to become pregnant as urgent as the men’s desire for a child) and Freddy’s petulance (he’s planning an art show that dissects his own shortsighted fears of fatherhood) are largely contained within a decadent NYC apartment. The goings-on of the metropolis seem a distance away, as this bourgeois triad’s awareness possesses a startling inward quality. That’s to say that when an outsider invades their space, it rattles the trio to its core. In this case, it’s a man who goes by the moniker The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey). Known to antagonize pedestrians in the neighborhood, as well as operate a leaf blower in the early hours of the morning, he’s something of an omnipotent figure in the area, perpetually lingering throughout the narrative and economically deployed to instill terror.
Nasty Baby has developed a notorious reputation over the year, having been rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 – the basis being that the film’s ending would need to be changed. Yet it’s the ending that makes Nasty Baby so intriguing, as it manifests its concerns with gentrification in a palpable and vivid way. As the film begins to enter a territory of sanguine preciousness, Silva upends expectations, forcing his characters to contend with the turmoil that exists outside the fenestrated apartment. These flawed characters, with their self-absorbed hipster tendencies, are confronted with a brutal reality that rebukes their privileged ability to enter a neighborhood and expect to change its DNA without repercussions. This is a notably sophisticated film, one that rejects conventional narrative cues for something much more dynamic and jarring. Not all of Nasty Baby jibes with my sensibilities – the handheld camera work and visuals lack some of the more vibrant qualities that defined Silva’s previous work - but this remains a sturdy and pronounced work from a director with the vital capacity to surprise.