Shiva Baby ****
Starring: Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper, Molly Gordon, Dianna Agron
Director: Emma Seligman
The feature debut from Canadian director Emma Seligman is an adaptation of her own short film of the same name, which was released in 2018. With actress Rachel Sennott resuming her lead role, this is an extended version of the same story, even if the other characters have been recast.
A Jewish family attend a shiva (a wake) of a family friend. Bisexual Danielle (Sennott) spends the afternoon truing not to argue with her parents (Melamed & Draper), avoiding talking to her ex-girlfriend (Gordon) and avoiding bumping into her sugardaddy (Deferrari), who is unexpectedly present with his wife (Agron). As the event wears on, the pressure mounts as all of Danielle’s issues come to a head under the watchful eye of her community.
With unities of time and place, this film is like a pressure cooker, observing the interactions of the shiva from Danielle’s perspective. A discordant score underpins the action, with unsettling strings signifying the mounting anxiety as she desperately tries to keep the balls of her private life juggling in the air. At times oppressive, the music is a striking feature that maintains a singular focus on Danielle when it would be easy to be distracted by the gossipy subplots. But with all of this building under the noses of their neighbours, the stress – and subsequent tension – is extremely well-depicted.
Rachel Sennott is superb in the lead role, albeit pretty unlikeable. She’s a deeply flawed character, but without these flaws there would be no movie. Like a realist play by Chekhov, this is all about the moments of emotional drama, where the characters feelings and interactions are the plot itself. And just like in Chekhov, it’s the arrival of an outsider that incites the drama. Even though this is a tried and tested narrative formula, it succeeds with aplomb, depicting both Danielle’s psychological episode and the tangled web of a twenty-first century Jewish community. It’s masterfully composed with an undeniable theatricality.
UK Release: Out now to watch on demand on MUBI, released by Utopia.