Shiva Baby review – a brilliant piece of palm-clenching cinema

Shiva Baby review

Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed. Directed by Emma Seligman.

This past year has exacted a heavy toll on people. That’s no great revelation; the pandemic and the general fact that people die means funerals have kept going even as the number of attendees has dwindled. As a result, the rituals of funerals in various cultures and faiths may have been altered slightly.

In her directorial debut, Emma Seligman puts us into the claustrophobic environment of a Jewish shiva, a period of mourning in which first degree members sit in remembrance of their deceased. Into this gathering of people comes Danielle, a directionless bisexual Jew who attends shiva with her doting father Joel and her overpowering mother Debbie, while contending with her ex-girlfriend, her sugar daddy and the arrival of his wife and daughter.

Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in Shiva Baby

Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper in Shiva Baby.

After the intense palm-sweating anxiety attack of Uncut Gems, the prospect of entering another anxiety-filled, time crunch crisis may seem daunting for viewers, but it ends up both welcome and exhausting. Seligman adapts her short film into 78-minute real-time panic attack of ever enclosed spaces. Making great use of very little space, Seligman is constantly enclosing the surroundings around Danielle, making every interaction feel damp with the sweat of being around so many people.

The film is very funny, helped by the deadpan humour of lead Rachel Sennott as Danielle, and some clever writing from Seligman, the opening interaction between Danielle and her parents – Polly Draper and Fred Melamed – is relatable to anyone with overbearing but loving parents. The talking over to make you appear more successful than you are, the covering up areas that are embarrassing is done to perfection by Polly Draper who in the opening scene refers to Melamed’s faffing father Joel as “senile” several times in the way only long married couples can.

Sennott gets the measure of Danielle well, she’s directionless in the way that so many comedy-drama protagonists are, you could see her as the natural progression of the protagonists from Girls or any slacker that Seth Rogen made his name in, but there’s a biting wit to her. Her own self loathing is partially to blame for this sense of arrested development but she’s never totally unlikeable.

The support from Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari and Dianna Agron all feel like they understand that this is a film about the walls closing in on someone, and never over do their roles too much, but it’s entirely Sennott and Seligman’s film.

As the film progresses the score by Ariel Marx becomes even more horror inflected and suddenly it feels less like a comedy-drama and more like a Jewish version of mother! It’s hard not to feel as woozy as Danielle does as things pile on top of her and people insist on taking up her time as only people can at funerals.

If there’s a flaw it’s that the growing tension undermines the humour and makes it less funny as time goes on which is a shame since Sennott has a deadpan humour to admire, and there are some moments of observational comedy that really hit home. Even so, as a piece of panic cinema and a debut from a writer-director to watch this is a brilliant piece of palm clenching. For anyone looking to sweat like hell, here’s your movie.


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