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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Shiva Baby (2021)

The close-knit and constant inside joke-ness of Jewish communities and traditions are a gold mine for comedic and personal insight. Dating a Jewish woman for 7 years (as of this year), there are endless instances of unintentionally funny stories I have heard and seen unfold through her family. Weddings, Bar and Batmitzvahs, Jewish holidays, the odd Bris story and of course funerals. Shiva Baby is the gift that keeps on giving with its endless barrage of anxiety and awkwardness that seems to have become synonymous with the Jewish sense of humour in film and television.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) attends a Shiva (a week long mourning process) only to find herself bumping into both her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy.

Emma Seligman writes and directs her feature-length debut, expanding on the experiences and ideas of the original short of the same name she made in 2018. Although expanding on that short, it still continues to play to its strengths. The simplicity of the setup is more than enough to wet our appetites. We don't need to stretch the story out over multiple days and locations. Seligman's choice of keeping it isolated in terms of locations and event works beautifully as twists, turns and shocking revelations are more than enough to keep us interested.

Dialogue that feels organic and believable is a must in films like this. Seligman does just that by giving the film a distinct musicality in the way each character talks that could only be based on real interactions and people that Seligman has had in the past. Each character and moment is fully fleshed out, and most importantly, authentic. Even if you aren’t familiar with the close-knit Jewish bubble, anyone who is in a tight cultural community of “everyone knows everyone” will totally understand.

“Mom, who died?” “Abbie, Uncle Morty’s second wife’s sister, you remember her.”

Dialogue like that between characters is something I always overhear when my girlfriend’s family are talking around the table about another person I am unfamiliar with but should know by now. As a goy, it’s so fun seeing and hearing about these things from the outside looking in, feeling so real and true to the characters on screen because we know these people. Lines of Yiddish slang integrated into the dialogue without explaining the meaning and context of each word, makes Shiva Baby feel that much more like an extended inside joke. Even if I have become familiar with some of the ins and out of this world, I still found myself turning to my girlfriend at points asking “Wait, what does that mean?” like some kind of uninformed goy that needs to brush up on his honorary Jew homework. And yet it somehow doesn't keep you out in the cold if you are unfamiliar, roping you back in with relevant themes and topics regardless of dialogue specifics.

It’s a cramped and very busy Shiva, with Danielle barely getting moments to herself thanks to having to constantly dodge her ex as well as dealing with nosey and curious individuals prying into her life. But once she spots her sugar daddy, then everything begins to overwhelm her. The tightest of tight close-ups begin featuring more prominently as the overbearing nature of the event and her parents begin to smother her. We often find her in the middle of conversing people as we zoom in on her, her mind elsewhere as the internal and external anxieties begin to crowd her, making us feel an ever-growing sense of claustrophobia. The use of the film’s specific style of music is also among the most apt of the year. Eerie and uncomfortable strings are pulled and plucked along with offbeat percussion that adds an uncomfortable layer to the constantly rising anxiety and awkwardness of each passing moment. It’s shot, edited and sonically orchestrated like a horror film. Think the rapidly high-rising anxiety and intensity of Mother! and Rosemary’s Baby played with precise comedic timing that would fit perfectly in Coen Brothers and Albert Brooks films.

Shiva Baby isn’t just about awkward moments at an awkward gathering though. Themes of sexuality, insecurities and self-worth surround Danielle as all these come into clear focus at this Shiva. Danielle’s ex and her sugar daddy at the same party conflict with her parents' idea of her sexuality and the implications it stirs within her religion and community. “It’s just a phase” is the running idea from her elders and parents as they often talk about how she needs to find a good man to help her figure things out. This imposes on her self-worth as a woman still trying to come to terms with the uncertainty of her future and the unconscious needs she eventually finds herself coming to terms with. It’s a film filled to the brim with internal and external conflict in terms of setting and character. It’s insanely smart writing that is funny, necessarily uncomfortable and surprisingly touching.

All of this would be for nothing if the cast wasn’t up to scratch, especially that of the lead role of Danielle. Thankfully Rachel Sonnett holds it down as Danielle, and she is a serious star in the making. Every one of the themes are felt and performed with cutting believability from her, managing to be the focal point in all the chaos swirling around her. She is an effective vessel that somehow manages to highlight each department’s strengths with ease, bringing out the best in camera, edit and music in exploiting her situation for our entertainment.

Shiva Baby is as sharply funny as it sets itself up to be, making use of its tense and relatively short run-time of 78 minutes to the absolute maximum, with no moment ever feeling wasted or mishandled. Seligman’s clear strength and love in collaborating closely with her cast and crew sets her up as a fiercely original voice that is destined for even bigger and better things.

Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (USA), coming to Mubi at a later stage (SA, UK, Australia)

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