Emma Seligman’s feature debut is a near-essential carefully-observed cringe-fest of the highest order.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener provided by the film’s UK distributor, MUBI.
Ostensibly, Shiva Baby, the feature debut of writer-director Emma Seligman based on her 2018 short of the same name and premise, is a comedy. Maybe a dark comedy if you want to get technical. And no matter what else you end up hearing from myself or other critics, I want to be clear that Shiva Baby is indeed a comedy and a very fucking funny one at that. The often blindly judgemental self-absorption that the shiva’s guests display, and resultantly their frequent whole entire arse showing, is relatably hilarious for anybody who has ever had to spend time stuck at a family-related engagement where everyone’s putting on the airs of social graces despite desperately hoping for something to enliven the routine. (God only knows how much more so it must be for Jewish audiences.) In the often-evasive tête-à-tête, passive-aggressive bickering and backhanded observations, there are some properly hilarious lines, and Seligman’s grasp on the suffocating tone is such that nervous laughter can spill over into belly-laughs at an unexpected instant. Make no mistake, Shiva Baby is a comedy.
But Shiva Baby also has more in common with horror-thrillers than anything else, and I’m not just talking about Ariel Marx’s plucking atonal score which is highly similar tonally to Colin Stetson’s work on Hereditary. In a somewhat reductive elevator pitch: did you love Uncut Gems but wish it were queer, even more Jewish, less violent and sweary and mean, and exactly half the length? Well then get ready to… I’m not quite sure “enjoy” is the right word to describe the experience of watching either film, but you’ve likely got an inclination as to what I’m getting at here. Shiva Baby is a high-stress, high-anxiety, high-key ride in watching a precariously-arranged house of cards threaten to catastrophically collapse at any second, with the viewer stranded right in the middle of it and unable to leave.
So, let’s count the number of ways in which Danielle (Rachel Sennott) could find everything crashing down across the almost-real-time unfolding 70 minutes. She’s a college senior from a devoutly Jewish family and community that wants her to go into law school instead studying gender in media. She’s bisexual, something that her overbearing mother (Polly Draper) and blundering father (Fred Melamed) keep characterising as “experimenting” ahead of Danielle settling down with a nice Jewish boy. She’s prone to acts of self-sabotage and a general directionless attitude towards life nobody in the family or wider local Jewish community knows how to deal with. Also, Danielle is a sex worker who lies about her income by pretending she’s a babysitter.
She and her family are sitting shiva for some barely-related member who’s just passed and whose funeral Danielle missed due to being busy with a client (Danny Deferrari). Adding onto the pressurised scrutiny, Danielle’s old girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) beloved by everyone (and inferred to still be closeted) is there and neither party has handled their break-up at all well. Adding onto that, it turns out said earlier client is also there, both terrifying and turning on Danielle in equal measure, and his being related to people with big potential job openings means that Danielle’s parents can’t stop trying to get the two to engage in conversation whilst inadvertently poking holes in the lies she’s been telling everyone involved. And just when it seems like things can’t get any worse, the client’s non-Jewish wife (Dianna Agron) turns up with his infant daughter. And on top of that…
You can probably tell where my Uncut Gems comparisons are coming from now. Danielle is not Howard Ratner, let’s be clear. She’s a fundamentally decent person struggling with a deep sense of shame and confusion about her sense of self, under constant judgemental pressure from her community and family, spinning out unmoored. And for as wickedly funny and acerbic as Shiva Baby can be, sometimes outright revelling in just how uncomfortable it can make the audience, most of its cast and the film itself are deep-down respectful and well-meaning despite their constant screw-ups and bitter lashings out. Most of the character, not all but most, are in some way sympathetic compared to the Safdies’ rogues gallery of complete assholes, although if anything that just makes the tightrope Seligman has Danielle walk even more stressful and relatable.
She and her collaborators do a phenomenal job at communicating a claustrophobic sensation of anxiety. Similar to Uncut Gems, there’s an Altman-esque cacophony to the sound mixing, piling dialogue on top of dialogue where certain cutting or fringe lines a hyper-aware anxious person trapped in a situation they don’t want to be in fixates on even if it’s from halfway across the room. The aforementioned almost atonal score by Marx seems custom-designed to pluck on individual nerves in ways which set an entire body on edge. And Hanna A. Park’s editing always knows exactly how long to draw a shot out for, or how many times to cut to and from the latest sight that’s silently chipping away at Danielle’s mental, for maximum stress.
But it’s Maria Rusche’s cinematography which most effectively communicates that trapped high-stress tone. She and Seligman shoot with anamorphic lenses that create a widescreen canvas to work on, but then force that camera near-exclusively into close-ups the entire time. Sennott’s face dominates the vast majority of the film’s framing, pushed in extremely close to represent the suffocating sensation this shiva is inflicting upon her, but Rusche also leaves enough room in the picture to squeeze in bodies and faces of other patrons in the near-distance. Often out-of-focus to communicate how they’re not getting Danielle’s immediate attention right now yet buzzing around regardless, an ever-presence chipping away bit by bit at a fragile mental state inadvertently. More so than the obvious Uncut reference point, I was reminded a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! which used similar visual tricks successfully to similar ends, albeit thankfully shorn of Aronofsky’s insufferably self-involved pretention.
Despite how triggering and harsh Shiva Baby may sound, and the fact that there’s a good chance you might watch a lot of the film between your fingers, it is still ultimately a warm-hearted tale at its core. Seligman’s screenplay and direction are too finely observed and empathetic to lapse into outright cynicism or oppressive filmmaking. Particularly in the handling of Danielle’s bisexuality and sex work, it’s never judgemental to her and her choices but at the same time isn’t shy about the frustrating realities of being either in the faces of others, nor is it ever preachy about the topics. (The payoff of the sex worker thread is pleasantly understated and all the more respectful because of it; in fact, all of the film’s payoffs are surprisingly but welcomingly understated, honestly.) The cast are all excellent, the tone is perfectly balanced, and did I mention that it’s also really fucking funny? As much as it set me on edge, it equally made me laugh harder than I have at any new film in a very long while. Shiva Baby marks the arrival of an extremely promising new talent, I’m eager to see how Seligman further refines her voice in the years to come.
Shiva Baby will play in select theatres for one night only on Wednesday before streaming exclusively on MUBI from Friday.
Callie Petch had to crucify some brother today.