Sydney Film Festival Review: Nasty Baby (USA, 2015)

nasty-baby

I’ve often been intrigued by the idea of what would happen if you flip a movie on its head. Market it as one thing and then turn it into something completely different. Something that surprises. Something that gets people talking. Imagine, for instance, if Hostel (2005) had been marketed as a raunchy teen comedy? The idea that the audience needs to know what’s going to happen to them is, I feel, a limitation of modern cinema. But it’s something that we can avoid at film festivals, where audiences are encouraged to enter into a film blind, to explore, to discuss and to take a chance with something new.

It’s in this respect that Nasty Baby, a film already heralded as one of the best Queer films of the year, found a perfect launch at the Sydney Film Festival, giving it the chance to surprise audiences in the way in which it was intended. Now, before you keep reading, the review does spoil some of this surprise – so, click away now if you don’t want to know what happens – though I do my best not to give away much.

The film stars its writer and director Sebastián Silva alongside musician/actor Tunde Adebimpe and Kristen Wiig as a trio of friends, trying to make a baby. Polly (Wiig) is at the age where it’s her last chance to have a child, and Mo and Freddy (Adebimpe and Silva) are a mixed race, same sex couple who are trying to help give her that opportunity. Though it’s a decision one of the pair is struggling with. Set in the modern hipster paradise of Brooklyn, New York, Freddy is an emerging artist with an odd connection to animals and a bit of an anger problem, and Mo, a carpenter with a strange obsession for plants, is the calmer of the two. The ying to his yang.

Though the main characters aren’t particularly relatable – even unlikable at times, especially in the case of Freddy – the main story line is well executed and Wiig provides well balanced comedic relief when it’s needed most. The three leads do well to convey the complicated situation, and the scene where they go to Mo’s house for dinner beautifully articulates the complicated family dynamic that is faced after a son or daughter comes out of the closet. The debates that they have at the table reflects the arguments happening in society every day about same sex couples having children and was very well done. Silva’s real life cat, however, may have the best scene in the film in an adorable moment between the two.

But a mentally disturbed man who calls himself “The Bishop” (Reg E. Cathey aka Freddy from House of Cards), disrupts their lives and turns the film’s climax into an unexpected thriller. Everything changes, from the music, to the lighting and its pacing. A film which was otherwise mainly shot during the day, is suddenly photographed solely at night. It’s like a completely different film is stuck inside this otherwise light hearted, modern Dramedy. A dream sequence of sorts. And while it’s compelling, its deliberate assault on your senses makes it a hard thing to watch. It’s intense – and it’s meant to be – and nothing that preceded it could have prepared you for it. It’s a daring choice, one intended to divide audiences, and it certainly does.

In an act of life imitating art, Alia Shawkat, who played Maeby in the popular series Arrested Development, features in the film as Silva’s assistant (or something to that extent) and serves as co-producer on the film (fans of the series will get the connection there). In the Q&A following the film, Tunde Adebimpe said she was the catalyst that brought him into the project, and it was this very shift in tone that enticed him into the project.

It’s all well and good to want to surprise audiences. I wish filmmakers were ballsy enough to do it more often. When was the last time you genuinely went to the cinema and found yourself shocked or surprised by a major plot twist? In this respect, director and writer Silva is certainly to be admired and respected for his decision for the film’s unexpected final act. But it will divide the audience: you’ll love him for trying something original, or you’ll hate him for upsetting what was otherwise a rather compelling “progressive modern (hipster) family” sort of story.

But I felt the sudden change in genre failed in its execution. The intense music overlaying the rather extreme subject matter, accompanied by over-dramatic performances (though fair in circumstance) simply made it too difficult to watch. It was bizarre, it was surprising… it’s probably everything that Silva had set out to achieve. It will definitely have you talking long after you leave the cinema. And though this makes is a unique experience, it definitely took away from what was otherwise a lovely film, often beautifully told, with some wonderful performances from the lead cast. If you’re a fan of Queer cinema, this is a must see film, but just be prepared for the unexpected darkness you encounter at the end – and do your best not to let it take away from the experience. But that’s something I struggled with in a film which was already difficult to connect with.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Nasty Baby premiered yesterday at the Sydney Film Festival. It has one additional screening today, however its sold out. More details are HERE.