Shiva Baby (4 stars)

Shiva Baby

Emma Seligman turns the social anxiety up to eleven in her hilariously discomforting debut

Set predominantly in a single domestic location and propelled wonderfully by its spiralling social discomfort and sense of the walls closing inexorably in, Shiva Baby is the droll and disarming feature debut of writer-director Emma Seligman, who is expanding on her 2018 short. It once again sees a bisexual college student bump mortifyingly into her sugar daddy at a Jewish funeral service, with her agony stretched impactfully over the increased duration. Enduring both the mildly and the potentially majorly disastrous, she's constantly teetering on the brink of scandal.

Rachel Sennott reprises her role as Danielle, turning in an enjoyably deadpan and subtly charismatic performance as the centre of a mounting storm. The film begins with this gender studies student accepting money from her older lover Max (Danny Deferrari), for her educational betterment / non-existent law degree. She then agrees to attend the shiva of an elderly family friend she can't actually remember, after being talked into it by her amusingly frank and liberal mum Debbie (a marvellous Polly Draper), with her serially forgetful dad Joel (the great Fred Melamed) also in tow.

It's not long before Danielle's oblivious parents are 'introducing' her to Max – to her absolute horror – who it turns out worked for her dad, and is married to the glamorous and successful Kim (Glee's Dianna Agron), who arrives late with a screaming baby. To further complicate things, and after some initial sparring, Danielle rekindles a romance with her ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), under the nose of their no-doubt disapproving relatives.

Despite the culturally specific context, it's a very relatable depiction of the pressure on young women to get themselves quickly onto a promising and respectable career path and to settle into an acceptable relationship. The community concern regarding Danielle's circumstances weighs heavily on her (there's some entertainingly sour work from Jackie Hoffman in particular) and further tension in the stark contrast between the conservative values on display and Danielle's transgressive arrangement with Max.

There's something appealingly anarchic about Sennott's dishevelled, slightly deranged and almost indiscernibly provocative performance in the midst of this supposedly solemn occasion. And the stripped-back, slightly off-key and anxiety-inducing score from Ariel Marx amps up the nightmarishness of the scenario in a freshly voiced and very funny comedy of errors.

Available to watch in cinemas with accompanying Q&A for one night only on Wed 9 Jun, and on MUBI from Fri 11 Jun.

Shiva Baby

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US / Canada
  • 1h 17min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Emma Seligman
  • Written by: Emma Seligman
  • Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron
  • UK release: 11 June 2021

Shiva Baby follows Danielle (Sennott), a young bisexual woman grappling with tradition and independence, who, along with her mother and father, attends a shiva, a Jewish gathering of friends and family during a time of mourning. Set over the course of this single climactic day-long event, the film perfectly captures the…