Writer-director Emma Seligman may be only 25 years old, but she has delivered a terrifically composed debut with the back comedy, Shiva Baby. It’s a perfectly realised film, loaded with brilliant insight and witty one-liners. There’s a mastery of tone in this claustrophobic and cringeworthy comedy which is perfectly built around its deadpan star, Rachel Sennott.
Shiva Baby sees Sennott’s Danielle going to a shiva – a Jewish take on a wake – with her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper). Danielle is earning extra cash by sleeping with her ‘sugar daddy’, Max (Danny Deferrari), money her parent’s believe she gets from babysitting. In reality, Danielle doesn’t even need the money as her parents pay her bills and her college tuition. Things turn tense when Max turns-up at the shiva with his wife (Dianna Agron) and baby – and if that that wasn’t bad enough, her successful ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is also present. The shock of having her parents, her lover, his wife and her ex-girlfriend all present at one family gathering is all too much for Danielle, who begins to unravel.
Bold, funny and incredibly well constructed, Shiva Baby has hints of Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic, The Graduate. However, Seligman’s film is very much a 21st Century piece which deals with relationships and sexual politics from a young female perspective. Rachel Sennott is excellent as Danielle, selling every moment of her shame and embarrassment with deadpan expressions and sardonic quips. It really is a star-making turn.
Emma Seligman builds the tension in Shiva Baby like a horror movie, and Ariel Marx’s score certainly wouldn’t sound out of place in that genre. Extreme close-ups heighten the claustrophobia of what Danielle is experiencing and the audience can feel every moment of her emotional agony. This is great filmmaking which pulls the audience into the orbit of the the film’s central character.
Shiva Baby is an exceptional debut for Emma Seligman and a brilliant showcase for Rachel Sennott. It’s funny, heartfelt and very tense – a combination which is rare in a comedy. Shiva Baby comes highly recommended.