Writing a true critical review of Nasty Baby is impossible without delving into serious spoilers. So, if you want to see this movie without being spoiled, here’s a short review: It’s an interesting and thought provoking film, if it’s a satire.
And that’s the main issue with Nasty Baby. I honestly have no idea if this movie is a satire or not. Walking out of the screening, I was convinced that Silva crafted a flawed satire of millennial gentrifiers. Then I read the press notes. It seems that Silva is sincere.
But I can’t believe that! For two out of Nasty Baby’s three acts, the film plays as a satire of a bad indie film. The main character, Freddy, played by writer and director Sebastian Silva, is every hipster cliché known to humankind. He’s an artist, living in a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn, and all of his friends look like they walked right out of an Apple commercial. When a gallery owner comes over in the first scene to discuss Freddy’s art project (the titular Nasty Baby, where Freddy and his Millennial friends act like babies, which just has to be a comment on the infantilization of Millennials), Freddy offers him a glass of water. In a mason jar. Of course.
The whole film is like this. Every character detail seems calculated to create the most annoying and clichéd version of Millennial hipsters. It’s so blatant that I cannot believe that Silva actually believes people live like this, so he has to be making fun of it, right?
Or maybe people do live like these characters. But the people in Nasty Baby also seem flat and one-dimensional. None of them come alive beyond a cursory establishment of character. Which, again, paints this as a satire, since in satires the characters don’t have be to as developed, because they’re representing traits and broad swaths of people.
But, as any comedian will tell you, the secret to a good joke isn’t the punchline; it’s the timing of the punchline. This is where Nasty Baby falls short.
The joke part of the first two acts goes on too long. If Silva condensed the first two acts into one, making the violent third the second act, and then devoting the third to how these characters reacted to Freddy’s actions, Silva could say something else about the gentrifying class that expands the current message, which as it stands is simplistic. Yes, doing that would lessen the third act’s shock value, but I feel that an artist with something to say (and Silva clearly has something to say) should rely less on shock value and rely more on his message.
Here is where we delve into spoilers.
In the film, Silva’s character Freddy has a problem with a longtime resident named Bishop, who is portrayed as a violent street schizo. Throughout the film, Freddy has confrontations with Bishop, who doesn’t like Freddy’s open homosexual lifestyle. He also attacks Freddy’s friend, Kristin Wiig’s Polly, in the second act, setting up the culmination of Freddy’s and Bishop’s conflict in an act of shocking violence. This act ultimately leads to Freddy killing Bishop dying in his bathtub, after Moe, Polly, and Freddy fret about how Bishop’s death will affect them personally. Then Moe, Polly, and Freddy go to sleep and head out to coffee the next morning, without acknowledging prior night’s events.
However, Bishop as a character creates a problem. Essentially, Silva is arguing that these upper-class louts gentrifying places like Brooklyn are selfish narcissists that have little concern how their desires and actions affect others. A sentiment I can get behind, even if it’s not the most groundbreaking. However, by making Bishop crazy and homophobic, Nasty Baby posits the only choice for places like Brooklyn are rich doofuses and the crazy impoverished. The truth is much more nuanced, and I think if Bishop was a middle-class person, instead of a schizo rapist, Silva’s satirical attack on the gentrifying class would be much sharper and much more powerful.
Gentrification of old neighborhoods and the displacement of longtime residents is a serious problem in America’s bigger cities, and that problem should be examined by both artists and policy makers. Now not every film that covers serious topics has to be a sober and stilted look a problem. There is room for laughter and satire. But, if an artist is trying to say something about an important topic, that artist should strive for depth. Silva comes close, but relies on shock value to express his point of view, which cheapens the film and his obvious talent.