Marvelously uncomfortable and cringe-inducingly hilarious, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby rides a fine line between comedy and horror that perfectly suits its premise—and feels immediately in step with its protagonist, the college-aged Danielle.
Played by actress/comedian Rachel Sennott, already messy-millennial royalty by virtue of her extremely online comic sensibility, Danielle is first glimpsed mid-tryst, an unconvincing orgasm closing out her perfunctory dirty talk (“Yeah, daddy”) before she dismounts and collects a wad of cash from the older Max (Danny Deferrari).
Though it’s transactional, as any sugar relationship tends to be, Danielle seems open to discussing her nebulous career aspirations with Max, and he gives her an expensive bracelet—suggesting a quasi-intimate familiarity to their dynamic, even if the encounter’s underlying awkwardness keeps either from getting too comfortable. As such, it’s a smart tease of what’s to come, as Danielle schleps from Max’s apartment to meet up with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed, naturally), and sit shiva in the home of a family friend or relative. That Danielle’s unclear on who exactly died is a recurring joke, and a consistently good one, but there’s little time to figure out the details before she’s plunged into the event: A disorienting minefield of small talk, thin smiles and self-serve schmear.
An extended wake intended to comfort mourners, the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva is one of several rituals in the faith around grief (see this year’s The Vigil for a separately great Jewish horror film built around another such custom). But anyone who grew up attending them can speak to the social asceticism that often stems from being crowded into a house of bereaved busybodies. Mingling shoulder-to-shoulder with relatives you haven’t seen since the last wedding (or, perhaps more commonly, the last funeral service), sitting shiva can feel like an emotional marathon for reasons entirely unrelated to the deceased.
In Shiva Baby, what writer/director Seligman (who is Jewish) so cleverly isolates is that surreal combination of forced intimacy, pervasive melancholy and honest estrangement native to Jewish family gatherings. The day’s uncomfortable enough for Danielle as she’s peppered with questions about her eating habits, relationship status and job prospects—you can feel her fear building as all the small talk she’s thought to prepare is exhausted within minutes—but it spirals into outright psychological terror once she spots ex-girlfriend Maya (the wonderful, scene-stealing Molly Gordon, for once in a comedy not soundtracked by a Run the Jewels song) and, of all people, sugar daddy Max. Even worse: By his side is the wife she never knew about, “Shiksa princess” Kim (Dianna Agron, of Glee fame), and their wailing newborn.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the high anxiety and mortifying comedy of Seligman’s film, though it helps. Underneath all the best Jewish punchlines lies a weary acknowledgement of inevitable suffering; the Coen Brothers knew this in crafting A Serious Man, their riotous retelling of the Book of Job, and Seligman knows it in Shiva Baby. Laughing through the pain, employing humor as a self-defense mechanism, has long been the prerogative of Jewish comedians forced to contemplate the absurd horrors of anti-Semitism, that oldest hatred. In Shiva Baby, Seligman identifies a rather fascinating overlap between Jewish comedic tendencies and the mockery of existential suffering from which millennials draw so much of their own dark humor. When Danielle sees an elderly woman looking over photos from a visit to the Holocaust Museum, she smiles, prematurely accepts the agonizing silence to come and lets out a murmured “You look so…happy.” It’s awful. It’s sublime.
Seligman’s feature debut is an expansion of a previous short film (her thesis, appropriately enough), which explains why, even at 77 minutes, Shiva Baby’s midsection drags, Danielle drifting between overbearing relatives and kvetching elders in an increasingly disassociated state. But this structure only serves to turn the screws more mercilessly on Danielle, as she’s gradually drowned in a sea of familial obligation and romantic entanglement. Overwhelming the audience alongside her is Shiva Baby’s handheld camerawork (by Maria Rusche), which favors extreme close-ups and subtle, quick movements to constantly entrap Danielle.
Known for combining orchestral and bespoke instruments with electronic scores to craft unpredictable soundscapes, composer Ariel Marx approaches Shiva Baby as a full-fledged horror film. All plucking guitar strings and plinking piano keys, her minimalist score conjures a uniquely protean sense of menace that seems to grate on Danielle’s nerves as much as ours. A key component of Seligman’s suffocatingly immersive approach to telling this story, its cruciality to the film’s success should not be understated.
In the hands of a less assured filmmaker, Shiva Baby’s claustrophobic construction would make for the worst kind of excruciating watch. But Seligman draws tension from her characters as much as the film’s structure, all the better for transforming the commotion of overlapping conversations into a volley of wince-inducing observations, objectively rib-tickling asides and sneaky, under-the-wire zingers.
Seligman also sharply depicts the relationship dynamics in free-wheeling play throughout the shiva, taking particular relish in exploring Danielle’s troubled bond with her alternately tough and smothering mother, Debbie. Jewish mothers have long been renowned culturally for elevating the guilt trip into an art form, and if Seligman deals in such stereotypes throughout Shiva Baby (ditto for Melamed’s hapless schlimazel father, a fun inversion of his conniving widower from A Serious Man), she does so with a wry affection that uncovers the cultural stakes behind such behavior.
At the heart of Debbie’s needling is her desire to see Danielle succeed on every front—professionally, romantically and certainly publicly—and one of Shiva Baby’s most intriguing conflicts is this generational rift between mother and daughter, through which their definitions of this success have grown dissimilar. To Danielle, openly embracing her sexuality matters a great deal, be that through majoring in gender studies, expressing her bisexual identity with Maya or pursuing a business enterprise of her own through sporadically empowering sugar arrangements. That Debbie is still unable to accept this side of her daughter, especially within earshot of any yammering yentas, keeps them at arm’s length even within the nose-to-nose confines of Seligman’s frame.
Danielle’s bisexuality is handled with a particularly deft touch by the script, which subtly and often drolly acknowledges the wedge it’s driven between her and her family. Whenever she and Maya have a moment alone, wandering eyes seek them out and size up whether they’re keeping an appropriate distance. The two seem aware of this but more or less roll their eyes at the inevitable intrusions. Sennott is a natural, too, at letting flashes of emotion—exasperated wit, coy sensuality, roiling anxiety—flit across her otherwise impassive features and dead-eyed stare, an inspired fit for this comedy of vigorously restrained microexpressions.
Shiva Baby descends practically into a fugue state for its hellishly entertaining final third, Danielle’s panic intensifying as her private life threatens to spill out into view. And Seligman responds by ratcheting up the tension to cruelly hysterical heights, relying on Sennott’s performance to bring out her co-stars’ strengths—Gordon’s commiserate warmth, Agron’s savage politeness and Melamed’s cluelessness, especially—the more noticeably pressurized she becomes. That the climax involves shattered glass, helpless tears and a few humiliations more marks this as one of the most confidently, winningly Jewish comedies in years.
Director: Emma Seligman
Writer: Emma Seligman
Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron
Release date: April 2, 2021
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.