Emma Seligman’s debut feature uses a shiva, a Jewish post-funeral gathering, as the setting for a comedy about a young woman who doesn’t fit in, but tries to act like she does.
Shiva Baby, a comedy of discomfort from Canadian writer/director Emma Seligman, opens with college senior Danielle, played by Rachel Sennott, having sex with a slightly older man named Max. When they’re done, she hints at a prior arrangement, and Max dutifully hands her some cash, saying that he likes the idea of helping someone so smart go to law school. Later, we see Danielle, now dressed up nicely, meeting her parents outside a house where a family is sitting shiva, a Jewish custom of mourning a dead person after a funeral, practiced in this case rather informally.
Danielle doesn’t know who died. She’s only there because her incredibly pushy and controlling mother, played by Polly Draper, asked her to come. The guests are an assortment of affluent Jewish friends and neighbors, who mingle and eat and chat and gossip while maintaining a certain level of post-funeral decorum. But at this particular shiva, Danielle gets a couple of surprises. There among the guests is Maya, a young woman with whom she’s having a fling. This fact is fairly well known among a number of the guests, which they regard with disapproval. Then, Danielle notices another guest, Max, the sugar daddy we met in the first scene. It turns out he’s married, with a Gentile wife and a new baby, all of which is news to her.
The humor here is familiar in some ways: the older Jewish women asking “Are you seeing someone, sweetie?”; the smothering mom, the clueless dad. But the treatment is sharper than usual. There is a mounting sense of panic as Danielle’s private life threatens to become embarrassingly public. While her parents coach her in how to make it sound like she’s having a normal successful life, it becomes evident that she is lost, aimless, and wracked with shame. The dialogue is very amusing, but the main reason Shiva Baby works so well is the excellent Rachel Sennott. She nails this secretive, inarticulate, utterly confused yet defiant young woman as an absolute presence in the center of the film.
Seligman originally created Shiva Baby as a 15-minute thesis film at NYU in 2018, also starring Sennott. That was met with such approval that she fleshed the story out with more characters, to produce this, her first feature film. It retains an economy of style with a brilliantly compressed running time of 77 minutes. I love the idea of an entire film drama, after the opening scene, taking place at a shiva. These are supposed to be solemn events, or at least quietly respectful. The wild goings-on in this story are especially funny when contrasted with the setting.
There’s something inside Danielle that wants to violate decorum, to scream out that she doesn’t really belong here, that she’s tired of pretending. And as it happens, this doubles as an impulse toward self-sabotage. Sending a picture of her boobs to Max during the party, and then accidentally leaving her phone in the bathroom, the possibility of discovery by the shiksa wife, who seems to suspect that there’s something going on, hangs over the rest of the picture. Meanwhile, Maya, her secret lesbian partner, also notices that she’s acting weird, and thus keeps provoking her. The film becomes like a neurotic pressure cooker, but not without an occasional poignant moment, such as Danielle trying to reach out for help to her mother, but not being able to decide what kind of help she needs.
Max’s little baby cries throughout the day, prompting judgmental guests to wonder out loud why anyone would bring a baby to a shiva. The title, Shiva Baby, plays on that bit of quirky symbolism, while also referring to our main character and her childlike fear of failure.
This is a good, honest comedy. In fact, Shiva Baby is so funny, it hurts.