Shiva Baby is a failure-to-launch comedy of aspirational anxiety and adds writer/director Emma Seligman’s name to the list of 1980s-born New York(ish) women working the seam – Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig and Desiree Akhavan.
Seligman adds her own distinctive twist, though, a genre switcheroo as screwball comedy morphs into something darker and tenser, an almost Hitchcock-y vibe emerging as main focus Danielle (Rachel Sennott) works herself into terrible situations entirely of her own making.
What’s more impressive is that the action takes place all on one set, inside the house where a shiva (the Jewish wake/mourning period) is taking place after the death of someone – the obligated Danielle isn’t actually sure who – where monsters from Danielle’s past, present and future lurk.
From the recent past there’s Maya (Molly Gordon), a schoolfriend Danielle was unfortunately “experimenting” (her mother’s word) with, an experiment that might have unlocked deeper feelings on either, neither, or both sides.
Danielle’s parents are the archetypal fussing/fierce/TMI-sharing Jewish couple Debbie and Joel, played to the hilt by Polly Draper and Fred Melamed. They join other creatures from the present, including Max (Danny Deferrari), the married man Danielle’s currently shtupping, who’s brought along his cute blond “shiksa princess” (Debbie’s words again) wife and their adorable daughter. Who brings a baby to a shiva?, tuts the Jewish matriarchy as one.
Meanwhile, lurking in the future, is the big wide world, where Danielle’s qualification in gender studies isn’t – the room seems convinced – going to cut it. Tough crowd. Danielle isn’t so sure either.
Danielle’s must-do is to skilfully avoid all these, plus the buffet – “she’s eating/she’s not eating” clucks the matriarchy as the wasn’t-she-fat-isn’t-she-thin Danielle either succumbs to potato salad or not.
On top of all that is the fatally insecure Danielle’s ability to self-sabotage. Whipping off her bra in the bathroom at the shiva at one point, she sends a topless selfie to Max, just to remind him what a rack she has. And then forgets to take her phone with her when she leaves. A depth charge.
It’s a perfect nightmare for the teenager lacking in self-confidence, made bearable and funny by the brilliantly observed writing as the super-smart Danielle attempts to close down all dangerous subjects, divert attention, erect barriers and set off smoke bombs of defensive behaviour at the first sign of trouble, including offering to clear up some vomit at one point. Though whatever she does, Danielle cannot escape and Seligman’s rangy and selectively focusing camera will suddenly snap to reveal a new danger – Max, or Maya, or another looming, concerned oldie asking probing questions about “your future” and the worrying role gender studies will or won’t be playing in it.
Structured and written like a screwball comedy but with the nightmarish aspect of a thriller set in a hall of mirrors, the atmosphere is reinforced by the jangling, discordant, thriller-ish soundtrack by Ariel Marx, who, judging by the sudden flurry of credits on the IMDB, is deservedly having a bit of a moment.
Sennott looks throughout like the nerdy kid who’s caught in a pincer movement by her sexual hormones and her fear of failure and is a descendant of any number of putzes played by Woody Allen before he started getting other people to play the role. Or a mix of that punchable Jason Schwartzman character in Rushmore, Jason Biggs in American Pie and Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite. All guys. Though Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha comes close.
So, a double star-is-born film revealing Sennott as a deadpan comedic force to be reckoned with and Seligman as a writer/director with a bright future. And since both are still still mid-20s, there’s plenty yet to come.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021