Director: Emma Seligman
Writer: Emma Seligman
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron
Producers: Kieran Altmann, Katie Schiller, Lizzie Shapiro
Music: Ariel Marx
Cinematography: Maria Rusche
Editor: Hanna A. Park
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 77mins
What’s the story: At a Jewish funeral service, college student Danielle (Sennott) bumps into her sugar daddy (Deferrari) and her ex (Gordon). As Danielle hits the drinks bar, what secrets will be revealed?
What’s the verdict: If Hollywood continues the current trend of hiring talented indie filmmakers to helm their blockbusters, they would do well to pick writer/director Emma Seligman.
On the evidence of Shiva Baby, she could take a bloated superhero epic and wrestle it into a reasonable running time without sacrificing suspense, character or emotion.
All of which are thrillingly packed into a brisk 77-minutes for her feature debut: an exquisite comedy-of-embarrassment dominated by Rachel Sennott’s breakout performance as Danielle.
Danielle is in thrall to/envious of her ex Maya (Gordon), a high-achiever on her way to law school. Which impresses fellow mourners more than Danielle’s self-created college course, which focusses on “Business. And gender. Gender… business.”
But this gender-business-guru is shell-shocked when her sugar daddy Max (Deferrari) arrives at the shiva. Along with his beautiful, successful non-Jewish wife Kim (Agron). And their new baby.
Based on Seligman’s 2018 short, Shiva Baby is laugh-out-loud hilarious and sweaty-palmed tense. Often in the same moment.
The writer/director moves her characters around the increasingly claustrophobic house of the bereaved with the precise brilliance of a chess master. Seligman knows when to drop fresh revelations and when to keep characters (and the audience) guessing as to who knows what.
Particularly, how aware are both the inscrutable Kim and Danielle’s fidgety parents (Draper and Melamed) of her extracurricular social hook-ups…
All this could have worked as merely well-executed farce, and there are Jewish mother jokes courtesy of Draper to keep the chuckles flowing.
But Shiva Baby has higher ambitions. A shiva (Wikipedia informs me) is a week-long period of mourning. But, Danielle seems to experience all seven days in one frantic afternoon, self-mourning as self-doubt and self-loathing escalates. A darkly amusing aside is that the actual subject of the shiva barely receives a mention.
Undoubtedly there are cultural references that sailed over this reviewer’s head. No matter. Seligman’s film triumphs in showing how all family gatherings are comically awkward and passively aggressive, no matter the background.
Reprising her role from the short, Sennott weaves a character sympathetic, self-destructive, funny and infuriating. Gordon, best known from Booksmart and Good Boys, has more to do than simply shine a light on Danielle’s failures, while Deferrari’s sugar daddy waster is a masterclass in playing nervously pathetic.
Draper and Melamed deliver first rate comic relief and deserve their own spin-off movie (choice quote: “I have gaydar… My gaydar’s strong as a bull.”).
Side-stepping staginess, Seligman shoots in tight close-ups with a constantly roving camera, drawing fine work from her crew as well as cast. Cinematographer Maria Rusche lights the whole affair with the autumnal hues and deep shadow intrigue of Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather. Hanna A. Park’s editing and composer Ariel Marx’s skittish strings transform the whole thing into a dance on hot coals.
Comparisons to Margot at the Wedding and Death at a Funeral are apt. But, Shiva Baby most closely recalls the finest moments from Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Trust us, that is a strong recommendation.