Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 18 minutes, Director – Emma Seligman
While attending a shiva college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) finds herself encountering many awkward interactions, including with her ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari).
Out of all places where you’d least want awkward, pressured into a corner, interactions a post-funeral gathering is perhaps towards the top of the list. It’s just the place where money-tight college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) experiences almost every kind of social disaster possible. Her anxiety skyrockets, as does that of the audience, over the course of a tense 78 minutes as she encounters not just her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) and her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), but every unnameable friend and family member possible. All of the latter asking her if she’s lost weight and is eating enough, while saying that she appears to have gained weight as soon as she’s walked off.
Writer-director Emma Seligman’s feature debut – adapted from her short film of the same name – plays out in what feels like real-time. This style heightens the anxiety and tension that rises throughout the short run-time of the piece and truly places you in the shoes of the suffering central figure as she tries to weave her way through the event with as little trouble, mix-ups and identity reveals as possible. None of which is helped by her parents (Fred Melamed, Polly Draper) who want to tell everyone about how well their daughter’s doing at college, which Max doesn’t know she attends. In tandem Danielle is unaware of Max’s business-minded wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), or the fact that the couple have a child together. Seligman manages to mix humour into the proceedings while also allowing for the awkwardness to come through at the same time, hand in hand with tension. A cocktail of effects that all have an impact on the viewer and never get in the way of each other.
Seligman’s fluid and clearly structured narrative is brought further to life by the fine performances that line it. All characters largely present in the cramped environment of a small front room. Sennott in particular, in the lead role, perfectly captures and gets across the internal panic and fear of her character as she fails to avoid conversation and all manner of awkward encounters. Ariel Marx’s score adds to this with rising strings that feel as if they’ve been taken directly from a horror movie. Truly adding to the piece and putting you near the edge of your seat with tension and anticipation, wanting to see how the unpredictable set of circumstances will pan out.
The build-up suggests that it could end any way, although mostly perhaps that it won’t end well for a number of characters with the amount of secrets that some are hiding, painfully discovered by others at various points throughout – the slight feud between Danielle and Molly turns into a battle with known secrets as weaponry. There’s not one moment or scene where full advantage is not taken to increase the heaped tension and humour that the film raises, alongside advancing characters with something to do that helps to advance the narrative, or rather dizzying awkwardness that the central figure is plunged further into.
Despite the tension and anxiety that runs thickly throughout Shiva Baby is still a hugely enjoyable watch. All elements come together to create a fine, entertaining blend that forces the viewer to take a centre seat in-front of the crowd of gathered mourners and gossipers. It’s far from the drama of something like Uncut Gems, but equal levels of tension are mixed in with the film’s finely tuned humour, boosted by an excellent ensemble cast and stirring score. There’s a lot to like with the anxiety-based endurance test that is Shiva Baby. Luckily it’s a brilliantly made debut feature and keeps you entertained rather than cringing over the course of the gripping, fast-flowing 78 minute run-time.
The real time feel is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the anxious tension that flows thick throughout Shiva Baby. Luckily, there’s plenty of effective humour in Emma Seligman’s excellent debut feature, brought further to life by a great ensemble cast.