“Shiva Baby” may be billed as a comedy, but the story that unfolds on screen plays out more like a horror film than anything else. Writer/director Emma Seligman’s debut feature is almost unbearably tense and uncomfortable, but also riotously funny, all while conveying a deep understanding of her main character, a young woman whose life lacks direction.
That young woman is Danielle (played by Rachel Sennott). It isn’t long into the film, when Danielle attends a shiva with her parents (delightfully played by Fred Melamed and Polly Draper), that it becomes evident that Danielle is lying to almost everyone. Her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) believes she is going to law school and needs money to pay for her education. Her parents think that she is babysitting when she is actually with Max, and that that’s where her influx of cash is coming from. In actuality, Danielle is still figuring out what she is doing with her life; it’s her ex-girlfriend and childhood friend Maya (Molly Gordon) who is attending law school and seems to be on the path to success. At the shiva, Danielle is horrified to find that both Maya and Max are there, the latter attending with his wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and baby daughter, neither of whom Danielle knew existed before. Trapped within the confines of the small gathering of friends and family, Danielle fields a bevy of awkward conversations while trying to avoid all her secrets coming out.
Almost the entirety of “Shiva Baby” is set in one location: the interior of the house where the shiva is occurring. Seligman’s dialogue is frequently hilarious, brought to life by her talented cast. But every element of the movie comes together to create a painfully awkward experience that is horrifying for anyone who has ever had to attend a family gathering, where rivalries are heightening and everybody wants to know everything about your life. Working with Seligman, composer Ariel Marx created a string-intensive score that is like something out of a horror movie. Seligman also shoots some of the conversations between characters with a disorienting effect. Distorted close-ups of people surrounding Danielle give the film an even more claustrophobic feeling, as if the walls are closing in on her; this effect is used increasingly heavily as the film progresses. Even Danielle’s appearance becomes increasingly dishevled. Every conversation Danielle enters feels like a battle, and the viewer is constantly on pins and needles wondering if she will make it out of this one unscathed.
It’s clear that Danielle isn’t particularly proud of her situation. Before she and her parents enter the shiva, Danielle asks them what her story is—they’ve all carefully crafted an explanation of what exactly Danielle is doing with her life and career to make her appear less aimless. And later on in the film, Danielle tearfully asks her mother if she’s still proud of her. Between the presence of Maya and Kim, who it turns out is a successful entrepreneur and her family’s primary breadwinner, the pressure for Danielle to be more and do more is always mounting. Sennott is perfectly cast and conveys this need for positive attention beautifully. She frequently acts cool and confident in conversation, but it’s always clear that it’s acting; underneath that façade, Danielle is nervous and overwhelmed. Some of the choices she makes throughout the film are annoying, but they are always understandable.
The rest of the cast deftly handles the constant barrage of revelations and uncomfortable situations with a sense of humor. Gordon is great as Danielle’s more organized half, the only person at the shiva who truly seems to see her, and there relationship feels like a step forward in positive bisexual representation on screen. Agron is a picture of ice cold perfection, but every conversation her character has with Danielle feels like she will erupt at any second.
Steeped in Jewish culture but with themes that are universal, “Shiva Baby” is one of the best and most entertaining films released in 2021. Despite its 77 minute runtime, its premise does feel like it has been stretched rather thin by the end (the movie is a feature adaptation of a short film by Seligman). But its ending is perfect: just enough things are resolved to feel satisfied, but enough things are left open that we know that while the shiva is over, the conflicts raised by its attendees are not. And that’s a testament to how, despite the fact that some of the complications Danielle has gotten involved in feels like a heightened version of reality, “Shiva Baby” conveys its themes with a sincere and authentic voice.
“Shiva Baby” is now available to watch on demand on all digital platforms. Runtime: 77 minutes. Not rated.