Shiva Baby, 2020.
Directed by Emma Seligman.
Starring Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, Molly Gordon, Dianna Agron, Polly Draper and Fred Melamed.
Danielle, attending a shiva with her parents, has to confront her personal life when her sugar daddy turns up, with his wife in tow.
A young woman is surrounded by looming faces, framed in grotesque extreme close-up. A rhythmic children’s song is being sung, interspersed with the thrums and clicks of a rapidly escalating, cacophonous score. The tension builds to an unbearable fever pitch as the woman struggles with whether she will ever escape. The movie is a comedy.
Shiva Baby, though, is certainly not an ordinary comedy. In the hands of writer-director Emma Seligman, the mundane surroundings of a family gathering become a crucible for mounting horror and weapons-grade awkwardness, pushed along by a terrific central performance and a smattering of excellent gags. It’s one of the funniest films of the year, but also the most frenzied and toe-curling cinema release since the Safdie brothers gave Uncut Gems to the world.
The aforementioned young woman is Danielle (Rachel Sennott) who, as the movie begins, is having sex with her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari). Once she has her clothes back on, she travels to a shiva with her traditional parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), who of course have no idea how she earns her money. She’s warned against spending too much time with former girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), but soon forgets about that awkwardness and that of over-bearing family members when Max shows up. Minutes later, his businesswoman wife Kim (Dianna Agron) arrives with their daughter.
The escalating awkwardness of a family gathering is something with which everybody can identify, and Seligman’s decision to score and frame the movie like an intense horror story is an intelligent, wry choice. With the camera pulled in tight on the characters’ faces and Ariel Marx’s score amplifying the discomfort and feeling of being trapped from the start, it’s a masterclass in how to extract horror from the humdrum. Even Danielle’s exhaustion at having to answer questions on the same two topics – her weight loss and her relationship status – is used as a motif of all-consuming claustrophobia.
Sennott’s central performance is a dry, deadpan delight. Her rapidly intensifying stress is never over-played and her struggle to maintain an emotional equilibrium is palpable beneath her occasionally cracking poker face. Gordon – so terrific as “Triple A” in Booksmart – is excellent and the scenes between the two of them have an electricity that breaks Danielle’s walls down. Even if the script didn’t tell us they had history, the performances have a relaxed energy which is conspicuous by its absence whenever Danielle is talking to anybody else. Certainly, the contrast with Glee star Agron’s character – the actor doing her trademark Waspy ice queen shtick to great effect – is as wide as a chasm.
All of the performers are on top form throughout, aided by the perceptive bite of Seligman’s script. Whether it’s Draper and Melamed’s word-vomit speeches or the carefully-calibrated barbs Gordon is given, this is a terrific slice of observational comedy which is able to delicately navigate the half-space between the cringe-wit of British humour and the uniqueness of American Jewish culture. When Seligman throws in all of her horror influences, the recipe is one that’s as excruciating as it is hilarious.
It would’ve been so easy for Shiva Baby to flounder by pulling its audience too far in a particular direction. If it were too intense, the comedy would suffer and, if the horror elements were foregrounded, the lightness of touch would disappear and leave behind a vastly different take on the story. In the hands of Seligman and her excellent star, though, the ingredients are kept in perfect balance. Shiva Baby is a laugh-a-minute comedy about family life, but it’s also one of the most stressful movies of the year. Genre, be damned.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.