Review: 'Shiva Baby' combines laughs and tension for one of 2021's first cinematic gems
Courtesy of Utopia
“Shiva Baby” might be one of the most unexpectedly hilarious films of the year. Emma Seligman’s terrific feature debut, expanded from a short film, is a 77-minute exercise in self identity and insecurity while exploring familiar comedy terrain: situational chaos. But “Shiva Baby” digs deeper than a comedy of errors, taking place over the course of one afternoon - in real time - as Danielle (Rachel Sennot - in a grandiose performance) runs into her sugar daddy at one of the most iconic Jewish traditions: the shiva. Seligman wisely navigates the bagel and loz buffet for a character study of societal expectation inside a tense vacuum. The awkward uneasiness which creeps through every frame stings harder because of Sennot’s stellar performance, elevated by a director with one of the best rising voices in the industry.
The opening sequence does a fantastic job laying the groundwork: Danielle is a liberal arts/gender studies major pushing through college (her parents pay the bills) and employs sex work to carry other financial strains. On the surface, her relationship with the 30-something Max (Danny Federrai) is purely transactional, but you can see Danielle is slightly more committed, signaling an even deeper resentment within herself, a feat that Seligman explores later in the film.
Danielle obviously anchors the story, and when she’s forced to attend the titular occasion (a shiva is defined as a post-funeral gathering at the home of the deceased) she maneverus between the onslaught of: “What are you doing with your life?” or “What’s going on after college?” questions with the comedic velocity of a younger Kristin Wiig. Her eccentric parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) never miss an opportunity to “sell” their daughter to relatives and family members - and aren’t afraid to shamelessly plug Danielle for any job openings. Even if said job has nothing to do with what their daughter studied in college. A running gag of them trying to explain what “gender studies” is proves a comedic highlight.
But fielding that type of behavior and screwball questions is only half the battle, and when Danielle locks eyes with Max at the shiva - who is there with his gorgeous wife and adorable baby daughter - all bets are off. What was originally intended as a harmless afternoon has quickly morphed into a nightmare. Seligman not only turns the shiva into an all-out war zone of passive aggressiveness, but a battle of wits and dramatic irony that no amount of yarmulkes can hide. Making matters worse, Danielle’s old girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) drops by to complicate tensions, and though “Shiva Baby” clocks in under 80-minutes, it’s a situation that couldn’t end fast enough and yes, that’s a compliment.
The embarrassing coincidences that populate “Shiva Baby” occasionally detour into contrived territory, but Sennot’s wise-cracking performance keeps things in perspective. The actress says more with a quick glance over the shoulder or staring down an endless buffet line than any spat of dialogue could allow. Seligman knows she’s got the goods among a close knit ensemble and lets them run with the material despite movies with a bottle location often feeling cluttered or restrained from their true potential. For “Shiva Baby” - next to Sennot - it’s the biggest strength.
SHIVA BABY opens in select theaters and TVOD Friday, April 2nd.