• Sebastian Mann

Shiva Baby (2021) Review

77 anxious minutes feel like an eternity in Shiva Baby, the wonderfully uncomfortable debut from writer-director Emma Seligman.

Named for the film’s funereal Jewish setting, Shiva Baby sees Danielle (comedian Rachel Sennott) navigating a painfully delicate predicament. She’s at the wake of an elderly family friend or relative she’s not sure she knew, desperately avoiding her much more successful ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), who outshines her in every way.

Struggling through the impossible gig economy her parents deny being so bad, she’s been relying on her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) to pay her way through a fictional law degree, pocketing the money and playing it off to her parents as earnings from a likewise imaginary babysitting job.

Sennott is terrific in the leading role, brilliantly inhabiting Danielle with improvisational and acerbic wit. When she isn’t being pressured to find a career, she is having to fend off obnoxious friends and family, who worry if she’s the correct weight and fret about her finding a suitable man.

And she can’t pay her way through adulthood with a babysitting job, as her dad, Joel (Fred Melamed) constantly reminds her. You may recognise Melamed as the unbearably well-rounded Sy Ableman from the Coen Bros’ similarly existential Jewish comedy, A Serious Man (2009), here delivering a superb performance as the absent-minded but well-meaning husband of Debbie (Polly Draper), Danielle’s overbearing mother.

Seligman strikes an immaculate balance between sharp comedy and palm-sweating horror

It already sounds bad, but things somehow only get worse. Her sugar daddy arrives, and the horrified realisation they share an extended family circle is immediately deepened by the arrival of his beautiful wife Kim (Dianna Argon) and their constantly screaming baby. It’s Danielle’s own personal hell, and we are helpless spectators.

Working from her own short film, Seligman strikes an immaculate balance between sharp comedy and palm-sweating horror. Danielle frantically tries to keep it together and contain her anguish with a crumbling, blase facade, as the faces around her twist and distort and Maria Rusche’s camera swings from room to room to disorientating effect.

Perhaps the film’s technical highlight is Ariel Marx’s fantastically distressing score, a discordant mix of plucky strings and nervous percussion that is stretched to the limit - almost as if it were trying to pull itself apart.