One of the most challenging tasks any filmmaker faces is to find a triumphant blend of comedy and drama, to play them off one another, and find a true reflection of life, whereby the line between pathos and humor is tremendously thin. Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva is something of a safe bet in establishing that compatibility, and not once compromising either notion in order to accommodate the other – and it’s most evident in his latest picture, Nasty Baby.
While his preceding pictures, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy, adopted the perspective of American protagonists living in Chile, now he’s reversed the trend, and we peer into the life of Freddy (played by Silva himself), who is living in New York with his boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe). The pair are toying with the idea of adoption, and wish to use the former’s closest friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) as a surrogate mother, which she’s more than keen to assist with. While the trio navigate their way around this sensitive issue, they are being persistently intimidated by the local nuisance known to neighbors as ‘The Bishop’ (Reg E. Cathey) who poses what appears to be an innocent, if unnerving, threat to Freddy and his friends.
Silva turns in a more than accomplished display in his first substantial acting performance. While there’s a small sense of self-indulgence on the auteur’s part, it’s clear that nobody else could’ve embodied this role quite like he manages, for Freddy is a fictionalized version of himself. The chemistry with Wiig, Adebimpe, and his colleague Wendy (Alia Shawkat) is palpable and crucial to this immensely naturalistic piece working. The realism to the piece is essential too, as Silva needs the viewer onside so that when the film takes a dark turn, we’re already invested and ready to go wherever this resourceful filmmaker pleases. The change in tone is something we’ve seen him succeed in before too, with shades of Asghar Farhadi’s work in how brutal the change is. What transpires is a perverse, hypothetical scenario, with Silva caught up in the middle of proceedings, and one of the reasons we can forgive his indulgence in this respect, is because we can relate to him, and place ourselves in his shoes. He may be playing himself, but in effect, he’s playing all of us.
It helps matters that the film sets the actor in his most comfortable environment, as the apartment they shoot in belongs to Silva, and the surrounding streets are in his neighborhood too. The mugs he drinks out of are his mugs, his on-screen brother is played by his real brother Augustin, and even the cat he owns is genuinely his cat. This is an experimental piece for the Chilean, and yet another example of why he’s one of the more important contemporary filmmakers working today.