Movie Review: ‘Shiva Baby’

by James Lindorf

Worlds collide, and secondhand embarrassment is off the charts in writer and director Emma Seligman’s debut comedy “Shiva Baby.” If you don’t know, Shiva is seven days of formal mourning for the immediate family, beginning right after the funeral. For the rest of the community, it is essentially a prolonged wake. Out of a sense of community and familial obligation, meek college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott, Call Your Mother) attends the Shiva of her mother’s uncle’s stepbrother’s wife. Other than dealing with the standard judgment about her major and what she plans to do after graduation, things are going well. Unfortunately, things start to get messy following awkward encounters with her ex-girlfriend, and her sugar daddy, and his wife and baby. “Shiva Baby” is a cringe-inducing laugh-out-loud comedy and is now available in select theaters and through VOD.

We first meet Danielle and Max (Danny Deferrari) mid-tryst, where a few superficial “Yes, Daddy” exclamations are followed by an unconvincing orgasm. Maybe the sex isn’t, mind-blowing but when some cash and a gift follow it, it’s still a pretty good morning overall. Their time together is cut short when Danielle is reminded that she has a Shiva that afternoon. After inexplicably lying to Max about where she was going, Danielle is off to meet her overbearing parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed). The Shiva is stressful enough, given that she is a few finals away from graduating with a mystery degree. Some people think she’s an art major; others believe it’s gender studies, business, or even law. Everyone seems to have some idea except for Danielle.

Annoying quickly becomes a confusing mix of joy, dread, and longing when she spots her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon, Good Boys). The best friend turned girlfriend, and now ex is beautiful, headstrong, and focused on a specific future, everything Danielle wants in a partner and in herself. Then in a sign that the universe hates her Max, and his previously unheard of “Shiksa princess” wife Kim (Dianna Agron, Glee), and wailing newborn walk through the door. The Shiva has now gone from mildly irritating to outright psychological terror. That horrific feeling is perfectly complemented by composer Ariel Marx’s slightly jarring music. The musical stings feel slightly unnatural in such a heavy personal drama. The music could be lifted from this film and placed in a thriller or horror movie with just a few tweaks. It is perhaps the biggest miss in the movie; it was very well done but still a miss. If Seligman had decided to forgo a score, I think it would have ratcheted up the tension because the silence would make things that much more awkward.

Wakes can be bad enough on their own. Being forced to make endless small talk with family and acquaintances you only see at weddings and funerals has to be one of the modern circles of hell. I think it comes right before the one where you are stuck in an eternal interview being asked questions about the time X happened. The Shiva is so important to Danielle that her inability to remember who died is a running joke that pops up whenever she gets a break from all the relationship drama. But she is there making the best of it, being charming, polite, and helpful. If it were just one hurdle in her way, I think she could have gotten through the day. Instead, she goes down swinging at all three issues. Seligman had an excellent story to tell and a plan on how to execute it with minimal resources. It is also great to see the often-overlooked B in LGBT getting some attention. The stellar performances across the board will leave audiences wanting more of this low-budget dramedy. No matter how many times they had to pause it to let their anxiety wind down.

Genre: Comedy, Gay And Lesbian, Drama
Original Language: English
Director: Emma Seligman
Producer: Kieran Altmann, Katie Schiller, Lizzie Shapiro
Writer: Emma Seligman
Release Date (Theaters): Apr 2, 2021 Limited
Release Date (Streaming): Apr 2, 2021
Runtime: 1h 17m
Production Co: Neon Heart Productions

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