Don't be fooled by this film's quirky title and robust comedic cast—Emma Seligman's debut feature Shiva Baby is in the running for the most anxiety-inducing, claustrophobic film experience of the year.
Shiva Baby follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young, bisexual Jewish college student who goes to a shiva with her parents after spending the morning with her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari). What she doesn't know is that this shiva will be where her life will dramatically collapse around her.
Danielle has to play a lot of mental gymnastics in her life. She tells her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) she's babysitting when, in reality, she's visiting Max. She pretends to have job interviews lined up to satiate the judgmental people around her—even though she's a gender studies major with no real plans for her future. She fields questions about her sexuality and when she'll finally find a nice Jewish boyfriend, even though she still has feelings for her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon).
These lies come to a head at the shiva, where she unexpectedly runs into Max, his wife (Dianna Agron, who is both sinister and completely magnetic here), and their newborn baby. Danielle is forced to add onto her already complicated web of lies to keep her and Max's arrangement under wraps. As if the walls weren't closing in enough, Danielle is also desperately trying to ignore Maya, whose prestigious law school plans are the apple of every attendee's eyes.
Shiva Baby is adapted from Seligman's thesis film from NYU, which premiered at SXSW in 2018. The seven-minute short also features Sennott as the lead—along with the formidable sense of tension at the film's core—but Seligman is able to develop ideas planted in the initial short and explore new territory in the feature-length version.
Shiva Baby is a case study in the most underrated elements of horror at its most painful: cringe. The events of the film essentially play out in real time, which leaves the audience with no choice but to sit in Danielle's turmoil and feel her anxiety with her—albeit probably through gritted teeth. Each minute adds a new complication, a new question Danielle doesn't want to answer, a new person she doesn't want to talk to, but she can't escape. Paired with Ariel Marx's staccato-heavy score, slightly distorted cinematography, and a largely handheld film style, Shiva Baby pushes the limit on how much bad luck Danielle (and the audience) can handle in such a short amount of time.
The film is filled to the brim with eclectic performances, but Sennott's commanding and layered mental breakdown is at the center of it all. Sennott is most known as a comedian on social media and her popular Comedy Central webseries Ayo and Rachel Are Single, but her much deserved moment in the spotlight is only getting started. In addition to Shiva Baby, Sennott appears in Olivia Peace's Tahara, another queer Jewish festival darling.
Seligman, who was remarkably only 24 years old during the film's production, has already made a name for herself in the indie film circuit. In an interview with The Playlist, Seligman cited John Cassavetes, Joey Soloway, and the Coen Brothers as major influences on her work—but it's only a matter of time before emerging filmmakers are influenced by the sharp, tense, and irrefutably human style of Emma Seligman. v