Please Note: “Shiva Baby” was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. With the express consent of the representatives of the filmmakers, we present the review of the film here.
No matter who you are or where you come from, you will likely be able to relate to the agonizing embarrassments laid out like a delectable deli spread in “Shiva Baby.” The specifics are Jewish, but the pitch-perfect humiliation humor is universal.
Writer/helmer Emma Seligman makes her feature directorial debut with this socially awkward comedy about a young Jewish woman whose secrets and shames are unearthed during one emotionally fraught shiva. Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a college student who’s seen very differently by the event’s attendees. To her parents, she’s a bit of a disappointment, as they watch their peers’ kids entering grad school and having babies while Danielle studies “gender business” and lies about her survival jobs. To their friends, she’s an object of pity for her lack of direction, lack of boyfriend, and loss of weight. (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps—and not in a good way!”) There’s some strange tension with her ex-bestie Maya (Molly Gordon of “Booksmart” and “Good Boys“). Between dodging her former friend and fielding a slew of personal questions, things go from uncomfortable to atomically awkward when Danielle’s sugar daddy, Max, (Josh Radnor lookalike Danny Deferrari) shows up and learns she’s not an aspiring entrepreneur moonlighting in sex work to get her through law school. Then, his wife arrives.
The escalating tension and humiliation are so intense you—like Danielle—may want to escape. However, social etiquette requires she stays, and so do we, playing jaw-dropped witness to the aching indignities of being paraded about by parents, pressured by well-meaning yet ruthless acquaintances, and pounced on by the suspicious “shiksa princess wife” (“Glee’s” Dianna Agron). This whole scenario is an obstacle course, studded with booby traps of harrowing embarrassment. Desperately trying to keep her cover and her cool, Danielle spins from one room to another, trying to tidy up after vomiting kids, stress-eating from the potluck banquet, or fleeing to the bathroom to double down on some scandalous choices. However, the most nail-biting and hilarious scenes are when she’s forced to smile civilly while her parents happily chatter away with her sugar daddy, then press him and his furrow-browed bride about getting Danielle a job.
It’s astounding this is Seligman’s first film, consider how masterfully she orchestrates the tension and comedy. It plays like a symphony of escalating embarrassments, which crank up the tension while the claustrophobic atmosphere of this cozy but crowded home reception means Danielle is constantly colliding with others in hysterical scenarios large and small. There’s one brief moment where she escapes outside for a respite, and it’s glorious! I won’t say why, as it’s a delicious and thrilling spoiler. But then it’s back into the thick of it, and all the pressure to eat, perform, not crack, and maybe put on a little lipstick while you’re at it.
With its anxiety-inducing antics and cavalcade of characters, “Shiva Baby” is about the enormous pressure young adults can feel in the face of parental expectation, especially when it collides with reckless fumblings of youth, love, and sex. Its content could very well be the stuff of nightmares. Yet this is a wildly funny romp, thanks in no small part to an extraordinary cast. With a spunky charisma, Sennott shoulders Danielle’s many trials, switching from steely stares to annoyed side-eye, sultry bedroom eyes, and quivering panic. With a mischievous smirk, Gordon is instantly intriguing, while Deferarri swans from cool to fool in suitably sitcom fashion. Far from her TV persona, Agron gives a remarkably restrained performance that is humane and humorous, never leaning into the tired tropes of “shiksa princess” or “jealous wife.” Then there’s a panoply of familiar character actors, like Polly Draper as Danielle’s sharp-tongued mother, Fred Melamed as her doting but dunderheaded dad, and Jackie Hoffman, Glynis Bell, Cilda Shaur, and Sondra James as their nosy neighbors.
All in all, “Shiva Baby” is a savagely smart comedy that dives deep into excruciating embarrassment. It’s a marvel and will pull you to the end of your seat, biting your nails in second-hand cringe. Then, Seligmann rewards us and her harried heroine with an ending that is perfectly suited, outrageous, and boldly sweet. [A]