I saw the trailer for this film in the theater and it looked like your average indie movie about Brooklyn hipsters being charming and whimsical while engaging in some mild moral dilemma, in this case, a white woman trying to have a baby using the semen of a black friend. Would wackiness ensue? Could Noah Baumbach be far? Then it received about the best review it possibly could, which said it took a very surprising, nasty turn in the last third, one that revealed all the seeming wackiness of the first hour as all part of a careful plan toward making a serious point, one that remains subtle and finely wrought. So how could I resist that? Off I went and... they were right!
We open with a shot of photos of a human baby next to a Harlow monkey. Harlow monkeys are the ones that were taken from their mothers as babies to see if they’d bond better with a wire mother figure or one covered with cloth in the famous experiments on early-infancy attachment. These are part of the collection of Freddy, who is an artist doing a project in which he acts like being an infant. This is partly because he is engaged in trying to impregnate his single friend, Polly, played by Kristen Wiig. Freddy is played by the writer/director of the film, Sebastian Silva.
It is soon revealed that Freddy’s sperm count is low, so Polly consults him about asking his lover, Mo, if he’ll supply the sperm. Mo is played by Tunde Adebimpe, of the group TV on the Radio, which is a little naueatingly hipster-insular, but we'll try not to get bogged down in that. I'm sure Miranda July's scenes were cut. Anyway, this all happens while they’re at the climbing wall of their gym, and many of the scenes unfold in their Fort Greene brownstone and neighborhood. So they’re current Brooklyn bourgeois, so liberal that it’s never a discussed issue that Polly will have a black baby, they’re just so open and cool about it. The movie is cool in this way too, and it was actually only after a few times of watching the guys sleep together that I figured out that they are a gay couple. Everything is open, everything is accepted—why WOULD it be a big deal that Polly will be the single mother of a black gay man’s child?—and can’t we all just get stoned and have some wine and cheese, listen to cool indie music on our Macs and talk about our art?
So it wasn’t long into it before I was writing “scenes rather aimless and unstructured” in my notes, as well as “super annoying insular Brooklynites.” They barely seem to have jobs—Polly is a doctor, Freddy an artist and Mo also works in some sort of artsy warehouse workshop—and do little but meet for dinner, go to the gym and cafes, and have post-Friends/Seinfeld kooky/quirky kinda-serious, kinda-frivolous conversations. At one point Polly has a snotty, entitled rant about the low quality of Freddy’s sperm, which passes under the excuses of “we can talk about anything” and “I’m just being honest.” Having a baby is like seriously the most important thing to her, and if she’s frustrated having wasted so much time on Freddy's worthless crap sperm, that’s understandable, right? He’s not seriously like going to feel insulted that she’s berating his sperm and the effort he went to produce it on command, is he? What are we—in the dark ages? So they’re complex people, but also rich, narcissistic, entitled, clueless and insular—and very, very accurate to the kinds of people who live in Brooklyn these days.
Meanwhile, there is an older black guy on the block who runs a leaf blower at seven in the morning, waking Freddy from his sleep and annoying the hell out of him. The guy is named Bishop, and is poor, scratching the surface of mentally ill, and has lived on the block for some time, in a basement apartment. He is barely tolerated by Richard, older gay man who lives on the block who is friendly with Freddy and Mo. Bishop pretends to help people park their cars, and foists other unwanted “help” on people, in order to intimidate them into tipping him. One day Polly buys a cheesy/cheap/cool lamp from him in a stoop sale, then discards it a few blocks later, its already-lame novelty having worn off. Bishop pointedly asks her about it later, and she’s evasive and defensive, like—can’t he understand that she just picks things up and dumps them? I mean, like, it’s no big deal, and isn’t he, like… a little weird for even bringing it up?
SPOILERS > > >
Things continue, things develop. While stoned and drunk at a dinner party, Freddy suggests they go throw a stink bomb into Bishop’s apartment, which they do. They all hide behind cars as the residents come out, and it’s very tense and our main characters are very childish. The main trio goes to visit Mo’s family, who criticize Mo and Polly for making the decision to bring a baby into this world lightly. Our trio responds like they're like, SO uptight! That night, Mo impulsively agrees to do it, and Polly puts it in and stands on her head so it’ll go in deeper. Back home, Bishop sees Polly walking with a large plant, and insists on “helping” her, despite her protests. When he comes up behind her and puts his arms around her, this is construed as an attack, and she freaks. Soon after, Freddy’s confronting Bishop over running the leaf blower blows up into something requiring police intervention, and suddenly it’s a group of white people complaining to a black cop about the black long-time residents of the block. Bishop’s encounter with Polly [trying to help with the plant] is now cast as a sexual assault.
Here comes the surprising twist at the end, by the way, so if you want to preserve your surprise skip out of the spoilers now. One night, Bishop unleashes a verbal tirade against Freddy in a convenience store and later on the street, using the word “faggot” liberally. Freddy goes back and hits Bishop, who falls back and gashes his head on a stone. Freddy goes into his apartment. Bishop follows, picking up a knife. This would be a great time for Freddy to call the police, but he hits Bishop again and downs him, then drags him into the bathtub. Bishop is in the tub moaning in agony, and—I love this touch—Freddy turns on music on his Mac to drown out the sound. Mo and Polly come home. They are in shock. Others show up, including Richard, the guy with the car. At a certain point Freddy decides that he can’t take the noise of Bishop moaning, and goes and suffocates him with a plastic bag! They wrap his body in a carpet and drive it upstate, where they burn and bury it. Polly stays home and cleans the blood off the floors and tub. The next morning, the central trio all get up and go out—maybe for brunch!—without a word about what happened the night before. There is no indication that any of them will face any consequences. They encounter a white woman pushing a black baby in a carriage, and coo over how cute the baby is. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
So, after being bewildered and shocked, beginning about fifteen minutes or so after the film is done and continuing into the next day, you start to put together what you’ve seen. You never hear the word “gentrification” and no one openly discusses it, but you realize that what we have is a block with some poor people, like Bishop, who have lived there for a while, but come into conflict with some affluent arty types, mostly white, who have come in recently, but now want the neighborhood cleaned up and convenient for them. It comes to a head, and then that devastating final statement: that the only black babies to be born in this neighborhood now are carried by white women.
The details are what really make it, only at first, what you’re thinking are “quirky” traits of our bourgeois bohemians and are not charming are actually quite purposely there and are not meant to be charming. We only think they are because we bring our expectations from previous movies, in which such behavior would be portrayed as cute and adorable. The main complaints the affluent artists have is that the poor people wake them up early—sometimes after nights of drinking!—and other trivialities like they don’t get that you would buy a lamp just because it’s cheesy, then throw it away. Some people actually spend money only on things they want—who knew? I was sitting there for the first half thinking “I really find these people vapid and their lives are going nowhere,” and then… turns out that’s what I was supposed to think! It’s a subtle switcheroo and plays on all of our expectations and prejudices from seeing previous films.
So yes, quite good. I didn’t love it while I was watching it, but I started to admire it more and more after it ended and I started putting together what it was doing and the tricks it had up its sleeve. The rare film that is happy to lead you off in one direction, all the while setting up a shift into a different direction… one that only appears in hindsight. Nice trick! And one of the deeper/richer films of the year. Hats off!
I kind of think so, especially if you live in New York.