As a fairly shy, private person who loathes being put on the spot — especially at social gatherings — I can’t tell you how tense I was during “Shiva Baby.” But it was the good kind of tension, the kind that comes when you are fully immersed in a world and totally in tune with its characters. I felt like I was about to crawl out of my skin because that’s protagonist Danielle’s (Rachel Sennott) state of mind throughout most of the film.
Written and directed by Emma Seligman (and an expansion of her short film of the same name), “Shiva Baby” follows a soon-to-be college grad as her different worlds collide at a shiva. Her loving but overbearing parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) want to know what she’s planning to do once finals are over, while family friends and other mourners grill her about her personal life. Meanwhile, Danielle’s ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and current sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) are also in attendance — and the latter has brought along his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and their baby.
It’s a powder keg of a situation and the pressure keeps building and building. Danielle’s parents embarrass, patronize, and pick at her in equal measure; Maya is alternatively cutting and flirty; Max acts guilty; Kim becomes more and more suspicious; the baby wails relentlessly. All the while the background players make judgy comments about everyone else, not least of all Danielle. I feel stressed out just thinking about it.
But again, that’s a testament to just how well-done “Shiva Baby” is. Seligman knows who these people are, and her vision comes through clearly in every claustrophobic shot.
As more and more of us get vaccinated and family functions become a thing again, all I can say is I sincerely hope that no one will will have an experience as stomachache-inducing as Danielle’s. But if you do, at least there’s “Shiva Baby” to remind you you’re not alone. All social gatherings have to come to end sooner or later, right?
“Shiva Baby” is now in theaters and available on VOD.
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