It says so much about Shiva Baby that audiences are calling it a horror movie although there is literally nothing violent or scary about it. What’s terrifying is college senior, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), attending a shiva (a Jewish post-funeral ritual where mourners gather to eat and socialize at the home of the deceased) with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), only to be forced to deal with the yentas she grew up with and some unexpected guests including her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), and the wife (Dianna Agron) and baby she didn’t know he had. Oh, and, also, her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon).
For a generation used to presenting different versions of themselves to different people, the coming together of these carefully compartmentalized areas of one’s life is the stuff of nightmares.
And, really, what setting could be better for this to take place than at a Jewish gathering? Writer/director Emma Seligman intimately understands their awkward, cringeworthy but, deep down, good-hearted dynamics (oh, I’d love to hear her own personal stories) and she nails it in this OMG debut.
I haven’t felt this kind of anxiety watching a movie since the brilliant Uncut Gems.
Music and camera work build tension in ways that make you gasp or jump even though the most dangerous weapons anyone in Shiva Baby is carrying are their words.
Some reviewers have criticized Seligman for painting too broad a picture of middle class Jewish Americans but audiences will recognize and deeply relate to these characters. Many of us grew up with them – some of us are them – and the performances are so good, so familiar, you feel like you must actually know some of these people. You may find yourself remembering your own experiences with the older women who used to pinch your cheeks and the ones who disdainfully said you were too skinny, like Danielle’s mother, who tells her, “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps – and not in a good way.”
The writing is sharp and often hilarious, like when Maya warns Danielle, “You’re projecting a lot of misogyny for a future women’s march organizer,” and when Max’s shiksa wife gets dissed for pronouncing “rugelach” like “arugula.”
Every minute of Shiva Baby feels real, and I can’t wait to see what Seligman does next. Imagine what she could do with a bris.