Dir: Emma Seligman. Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron. Cert 15, 78 mins
Shiva Baby plays like a panic attack. The moment college senior Danielle (Rachel Sennott) rolls out of bed, kisses her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) goodbye, and rocks up to the eponymous shiva – a kind of Jewish mourning ceremony – it’s as if she’s stepped into quicksand. Her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is there. The fact she’s put-together enough to have been accepted into law school both flames Danielle’s jealousies and her lingering desire.
When Max unexpectedly shows up, that baseline anxiety spirals out into chaos, fuelled by the terse violins of Ariel Marx’s horror score and Maria Rusche’s dizzying cinematography. He has a wife (Dianna Agron’s Kim) and a baby he never told Danielle about. Kim, with her sleek hair bun and multiple successful businesses, makes her all too aware of the giant chasm between who she is and how everyone expects her to be. Agron makes the smart choice of playing Kim as both sympathetic and lightly monstrous – the way she laces the words “can I borrow you for a second” with casual menace is bound to send chills down anyone’s spine.
Danielle’s parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) and relatives smother her. They want to know what she’s doing with her life, so she mumbles a few pleasantries about a “gender business” degree and a string of job interviews. Does she have a boyfriend yet? Why not? They prod her thin body, force lox and bagels into her hands, then retreat into corners to gossip about whether she has an eating disorder. It appears they might be right – Danielle hovers at the buffet table, loading and unloading her plate in some ritualistic pretence of normality.
There’s a perceptive twist at the heart of Seligman’s sharp and unremittingly funny debut, adapted from her own short film and unfolding in real time. A shiva is essentially the formalised, spiritualised process of grief, where an individual’s burden is eased by familiar paths and the comforts of family. By the end of Seligman’s film, though, the secular and the religious have collided in a way where every action becomes some carefully rehearsed ritual – the same smiles, the same jokes, the same gentle condolences.
These habits are a guiding hand in life that Danielle is too unrehearsed in to effectively perform. Sennott, a comedian whose ultra-cool social media presence blends aspirational self-love and feverish neuroticism, feels perfectly pitched as Danielle. She and Seligman worked extensively on the character, to the point that so much of Danielle lives inside her mannerisms. She might suddenly dart away like a gazelle or let her eyes gloss over, like the shutters of her soul are coming down. There’s too much here that Danielle needs to tiptoe around. Her bisexuality. Her lack of direction. Her sideline in sex work.
In Shiva Baby, it’s not so much that hell is other people – it’s that hell is how those people make us feel.