Written by: Emma Seligman
Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed
Attending family events should provide some level of comfort because these individuals know you best except for when you remember how much they do know and pose questions you need to answer. A nightmare scenario of queries about the future, your well-being, and other prospects gets distilled in the migraine-inducing and thoroughly entertaining Shiva Baby. A film working as a comedy but also manages to tell quite the horror story.
Working her good gig with a sugar daddy, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) needs to attend a Shiva for a recent death in the family. While at the gathering, she receives plenty of questions about what the future after college holds for her, which aggravates her enough before discovering her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari) is in attendance along with his wife and child.
The level of stress-inducing tension excellently constructed in Shiva Baby deserves so much admiration as it really nails what it’s like to be in such a transitory part in life and have relatives incessantly ask about it. Dealing with these insecurities in your own headspace can be stressful at best, but then you add a merciless wave of question after question with suggestions and piercing queries can truly be the worst. This film essentially becomes 78 minutes of this non-stop ride and as it continually raises the tension, it never loses its grip on the little bit of sanity it allows us to operate with.
Relatability becomes the film’s biggest draw because many have been in a similar spot as Danielle, maybe not with a sugar daddy who shows up to a shiva, but rather being unsure of what the future holds and then being plagued with constructing acceptable answers to these probing questions. It leaves you in a place of having to fabricate things in order to save face in front of others, especially when there’s another comparison point to hold up against you, which in this feature comes into the fray as Maya (Molly Gordon). A brutal reality and one this feature tries to make unique to the Jewish community but certainly translates across the board.
In capturing this story, the camera moves right along with Danielle as this event gets nothing but worse as the film goes on. Heck, it even starts with her not knowing who actually died. All of the piercing questions come as a close-up on the querier to really show how close these family members get physically when getting much closer with the suggestions and questions they let fly out of their mouths. It creates a disorienting feeling, which Emma Seligman certainly wants to capture and this definitely comes across when the camera pans back to Danielle as she looks horrifically uncomfortable with everything going on here. This only gets worse when the sugar daddy arrives.
A horrible secret with everyone in both of their lives there, giving any indication of the relationship between Danielle and Max would cause a bomb to explode in the home hosting the shiva. Awkward looks, forced conversations, and many implications, this dynamic becomes Checkhoff’s gun where you just know eventually the truth will come out but in what manner and how will the others react. Adding this on top of everything else just continually keeps the anxiety bubbling up with the sanity of the character on the brink of explosion and a similar feeling consequently gets lumped on the audience as we try to empathize with this truly stressful situation for Danielle.
With very few moments to catch our breath, this film whisks on by with its narrative and its absurdly short runtime makes for quite the meal of a story getting straight to the point. In this feature, lead actor Rachel Sennot really flourishes as she needs to hold all of the emotions her character feels and then add a poker face on top of it. From searing anger to dumbfounded shock, Danielle feels it all but can only express some of it in an outward fashion. A strong and commanding performance, which matches well with the pompous performance given by Molly Gordon. These two gravitate between friend and foe at different junctions in the film and this push and pull adds for a more heartwarming aspect of the story amidst all of the madness occurring.
A deliciously good time, Shiva Baby gets right at the heart of being in a worst-case scenario in life. The equivalent of having your worst nightmare play out right in front of you as Danielle must deal with her relatives, judgmental parents, an ex-lover, and now her sugar daddy along with his beautiful family all within the same house. Stress personified, which ultimately makes this such an enjoyable feature to experience and one that shines a light on some wonderful young talent in both Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott.