A shiva is a Jewish ritual whereby the immediate family of the deceased mourn for seven days, welcoming guests into their home to discuss their loved ones who have passed away, share in their sorrows, and slowly begin the healing process. Nowhere in the tradition does it mention the protocol if you run into your "sugar daddy" at said shiva, what to do about your loving yet overbearing parents, and certainly, it helps to know whose shiva you are attending. These are just some of the trials and tribulations our protagonist Danielle (comedian Rachel Senott) confronts in Emma Seligman's directorial debut, 'Shiva Baby'.
Originally imagined as a short feature, Seligman was in college and was pushed to write about what she knows - which in this case is a worryingly claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing comedy about a sex worker at a shiva - no further questions. What Seligman eventually created into a full-length feature - albeit at a very friendly runtime of just 71 minutes - is wonderfully unique and full of horror-like elements that will keep the audience's eyes glued to the screen.
'Shiva Baby' opens with Danielle's orgasmic screams, shortly followed by an awkward exchange of gifts, and an even more awkward hug goodbye from her lover Max (Danny Deferrari). Danielle receives a phone call from her mother, played so spectacularly well by Polly Draper ('Stella's Last Weekend'), summoning her to rush home to go with them to the shiva. There, we get to meet all the people that will play an important role in Danielle's life for the next hour, from her Father Joel (Fred Melamed, 'A Serious Man') to her old ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon, 'Booksmart'). Alas, the biggest twist is yet to come, when she comes face to face with her sugar daddy from the opening scene - only this time, instead of bracelets and cash, he arrives bearing a wife and baby. "Who brings a baby to a shiva?" one of the elder woman asks - a great question, and that will continue to haunt Danielle through the duration of the film.
Like any Jewish gathering, shiva or not, the room is filled with food, complaints, family politics, and most importantly, overbearing parents. From their perspective, they care and worry for Danielle, knowing only that she babysits and doesn't have a boyfriend. They consistently try to feed her, both food and opportunities - which plays excellently for laughs, but still has an underlying nightmarishness attached to it. And I have to say, the laughs they play for generally land very well. The amount of times we see her parents and friends of her parents hold her face and hips and worry that she's "getting too thin" may be a familiar comedic Jewish trope, but is always amusing. However, Seligman is more sophisticated than that, and brings an understanding and an acceptance from them to Danielle's woes, even if they don't really know what's bothering her. By the end of the film, you both wish and dread that they are your own parents, which is a perfect portrayal for what authentic on-screen parents should be.
Throughout it all, Danielle only has one thing on her mind, and that is to escape the suffocation that surrounds her. As the film progresses the anxiety grows exponentially, and Seligman includes elements normally reserved for horror films. The soundtrack to Danielle's despair are these disjointed, broken, high-pitched strings, and is ramped up by the often-accompanied screaming of the baby in the background. As the shiva unfolds, the blinds come down and the candles are lit, which not only aid the claustrophobic feel of the film, but result in a dimly-lit setting where the paradigm begins to shift. The continued obliviousness of Danielle's friends and family gathers momentum, slowly building the energy that fuels the audience anxiousness.
"Who brings a baby to a shiva?" One of the elder woman asks, a great question and that will continue to haunt Danielle through the duration of the film.
The tension is palpable, but Seligman is sure to cut in enough moments of laughter and genuine care that allow the audience to breathe, which is what separates 'Shiva Baby' from the more heart attack-inducing 'Uncut Gems'. This is no bad thing because ultimately, while 'Shiva Baby' includes many traditional horror tropes, this isn't a horror.
Clearly, Danielle did not know about Max's family life, as the suffocation she feels begins to unfold. It's worth mentioning here that Max too did not expect to see her there, but this is Danielle's film, and the burden is hers to bare for all to witness. This film rests on Senott's shoulders, and Seligman really knew how to write about her and how to direct her. Given a bigger runtime, perhaps we could have got more meat from the supporting cast, but nevertheless, Seligman produces a suffocating exploration of what it means for women to hold the power.
The power continually shifts throughout the film, and every time Danielle seems to hold it, she loses and tries her utmost to gain it back, which proves a difficult task. Her old friend Maya is sometimes in her corner and sometimes on the receiving end, because contrary to what Danielle believes, people there do care for her - she just doesn't want the help, or more likely, can't see that it's there for her. It means that she's often an isolated figure amongst a crowded room of people, which in turn highlights her insecurities and then shifts the power once more.
What's more, Maya and Max's wife Kim (Dianna Agron, TV's 'Glee') seem to be everything that Danielle is not. Agron is brilliant as the entrepreneurial wife and mother who can do it all, and displays an eerie calmness around Danielle that you just know will haunt her. There is mystery in the air, and the longer the mystery stands, the greater the toll it takes on Danielle - but 'Shiva Baby' doesn't just rely on the mystery, it wants to explore the effects of it. Seligman delivers on that premise, hitting some hard truths along the way, and reminding audiences everywhere that there is a cost in trying to juggle various versions of oneself.
There isn't much we haven't seen before, but Seligman has put together a delightful film that is sure to please. This horror-like, anxiety-inducing, claustrophobic and suffocating comedy is just that - a comedy. While it may play out like a psychological thriller at times, 'Shiva Baby' is a witty and fun film that may lack originality, but has plenty of energy and memorable moments that make for an all together confident debut.