Family. What a concept. We all have them, we all love them, loathe them, shout at them, hug them (safely, in these COVID times) and embrace them for they are ours and ours alone. Of course they are weird and wacky and wonderful but they are ours, no matter what our upbringing or history together. A big part of Emma Seligman‘s brilliant new film is family, in particular the uniqueness of growing up in a Jewish one, something the writer/director had first hand experience. She has taken her fascination with that upbringing and the stream of shivas she attended in that time and made one of the funniest, sharpest and most tense comedies of the last few years, one that has taken festivals by storm.
A shiva, if you weren’t aware, is a week-long mourning period undertaken by the immediate family after a loved one has passed, with visiting relatives attending every day in a family home to mourn, remember and pray together for the deceased. A calm, reflective time for many, Seligman saw things slightly differently and became fascinated with how people acted at them: poking and probing close relatives to find out what they had been doing with themselves, complaining and, above all, eating many a bagel. Translating that side of things into the foundation for her film, the story tells of a young Jewish girl named Danielle (Rachel Sennott) who attends a family shiva with her folks only to slowly discover that her life going into it will be very different when it’s all over.
Normally, Danielle would skip such things but compelled by her mother to break her laziness to attend, she arrives to a barrage of questions about her education (even she doesn’t know the answer), her weight, which sees multiple comments and pokes at her hips, and her love life, which brings her back in direct contact with ex Mya (Molly Gordon) and, to her horror, sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferarri) who she left just hours previous. Desperate to escape but unable to, Danielle’s anxiety and panic sets the stage for the film which at times plays more of a horror than a comedy, owing a debt in some aspects to Brian Yuzna‘s Society in terms of its ever-growing paranoia minus the otherworldly and stomach-churning finale, of course.
That said, as the film progresses, such stomach stress does actually present itself but in a very different way, a ticking-time bomb slowly running out of seconds before it explodes over the bagels and coffee and secrets are revealed, all told in a tight, claustrophobic way as Ariel Marx‘s extraordinary score punctures every frame. But make no mistake, Shiva Baby is a comedy and one of the highest and sharpest order, blasted into the stratosphere by Sennott‘s remarkably coy, unashamedly brilliant central turn as the confused, scrappy and searching Danielle, with Gordon, too, absolutely spellbinding especially when the two are together. There isn’t a false note in the ensemble, in fact, and with the film’s lean run time, every note is delivered to perfection and trust us when we say, there won’t be many films this year that do such things so extraordinarily as this one.
Comedy | USA, 2020 | 15 | Select Cinemas, TVOD | 2nd April 2021 (USA)/ TBC (UK) | Utopia | Dir.Emma Seligman | Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Dianna Agron, Fred Melamed