Dir. Emma Seligman; Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
Rarely has a movie made me as simultaneously agitated and entertained as Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby (2021) did. The film zeroes in on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a soon-to-graduate college senior jerked back and forth between wanting to branch out and define her next steps while still relying on her parents for financial stability. In hopes of finding answers to both predicaments, Danielle makes money and finds control through becoming a sugar baby. The various strands of her existential and logistical affairs crash together when she attends a shiva with her parents, and while packed into a small house with all manner of kooky characters, she also discovers that her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), and Max’s previously-unknown-to-Danielle-wife Kim (Dianna Agron) are also in attendance. From such an auspicious set up, Seligman unfurls a tight and serrated comedy that enters the collection of films that hew closest in my mind to Jean-Paul Sartre’s mantra that “Hell is other people.”
Containing a story to a single location runs the risk of growing stale due to lack of variety or chances for new avenues of tension. Coherence (2013) displays how to use the constraints well, while Malcom & Marie (2021) remains a cautionary tale of how dramatically the conceit can curdle. Shiva Baby lands squarely on the Coherence end of that spectrum, broadly because the combination of Seligman’s compact script and deft direction mine all that one can gather from her single setting and cast. This film is sculpted to amplify the rapidly expanding stress and unease that Danielle feels at every subsequent twist. From the outset, even before she notices Max, the mise-en-scéne practically suffocates her. The house is only a bag of red noses and white makeup away from a clown car with the number of mourners crammed in, and Danielle struggles to navigate the clutching hands of overbearing grandmothers, elbows of distracted parents, and the watchful eyes of, well, everyone, seeing as the secondary purpose of the shiva seems to be gossip gathering. Seligman brings her camera close to Danielle throughout the densely filled space, favoring a steady diet of close-ups of her heroine’s face, and medium shots to remind us how compressed her setting is. Once the dramatic dominos begin cascading, the claustrophobia ratchets up, barreling us towards a razor-sharp final 15 minutes of the swift 77-minute runtime. There is no fluff to be found here, and because every doorway, side comment, and shot has a clear purpose and forward momentum, the pace is breathtakingly brisk.
Seligman’s decision to rest all of this on Sennott’s talent is a masterstroke. A young actress whose first credit popped up in 2016 and had not secured a breakout since then, Sennott is superb as she navigates the tonal tightrope between acrid humor and momentous anxiety. The crux of her performance is that she is most often tasked with reacting: to people, to dramatic reveals, and so on. As she walks around the shiva, she is pestered by women noting how “skinny” she is, a change from the fact that she was apparently a rather “chubby” teenager. Her own mother even notes that she looks “like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps- and not in a good way.” Pair that with the cascading reveals of Max’s presence, his wife, and a third truly shocking one that I won’t spoil, and it’s clear Danielle is fending off crises on all fronts. Sennott captures a sense of simmering agitation both in her line deliveries and in her movements, the latter making up the majority of her performance. There is a labored nature to the way she walks and dodges her way through the house, and I am truly in awe of the control she exhibits over her eyes and lips, the slightest twitch or widening displaying a whole range of micro-emotions. It makes the comic moments pop even more. There are a whole host of them, but I rewound a moment where she loads and unloads a plate of food multiple times while processing Max’s presence again and again because without a single line uttered, Sennott was hilarious. Her background as a comedian, and especially the physicality of that medium, shines through in the performance.
In this regard, the outstanding supporting cast is tasked with weaving in and out of Sennott’s path to provide wrinkles in Danielle’s story that she must handle and attempt to contain, both for punchlines and existential spirals. Her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) supply many of these, partially due to their compulsive need to lie and say Danielle has “a few interviews” lined up so that they feel better about her future, or the classic parental predicament of sending the child back and forth to ask each parent if they’re ready to leave, achieving only a further delay of the departure. Melamed and Draper both have rich backgrounds on sitcoms, and they bring the tell-tale caricature of a sitcom character, one that deems to perform in sweeping generalizations to appeal to a wide audience and hones that to be a perfect set of overbearing but generally loving parents. They are matched only by Gordon’s performance as Maya. Her calibrated work immediately reveals she is still interested in Danielle, through awkward eye contact and inside jokes, while also harboring a load of resentment that Danielle has not stayed in better touch houses all the best parts of a neurotic rom com. At one point she announces to Max that she and Danielle attended prom together, and that afterwards she gave Danielle “her first orgasm,” and the number of dynamics both cringe-worthy and hilarious at play in that scene are divinely entertaining. Sennott plays off all of them beautifully, rotating between a harried daughter and lonely young woman while holding on to the slightest bit of hope that things will get better.
Shiva Baby is the sort of movie I watch and step away from with an instantaneous rush to want and sit down at my computer to write my own story. Seligman’s work is electrifying in that way, reminding you of what can be accomplished with a stellar script, a great eye at the camera, and a cast prepared to go for broke at each ensuing turn into further madness. If that’s not enough to convince you to drop the $4.99 to rent it on Prime, I leave with one final push, a recognition of the marker of a movie destined to be iconic, that sought-after one-liner you can shout at your friends and family whether it fits the situation or not: “Who brings a fucking baby to a shiva?”