Shiva Baby (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Her accumulating troubles at a shiva

Emma Seligman’s debut feature film “Shiva Baby” is often sharply and painfully funny to say the least. Mainly revolving around one young woman who suddenly finds herself in a very awkward situation during one Jewish ritual meeting full of neighbors and relatives, the movie deftly goes up and down along with its heroine during its rather short running time (77 minutes), and it is surely a rare comic gem I am willing to revisit for appreciating many deliciously humorous moments which did drew lots of giggles and chuckles from me during my viewing.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a young American Jewish woman named Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who is a senior college student and has also been a ‘sugar baby’ for some older man. Right after having another private time with that dude in his Manhattan apartment, Danielle hurriedly joins her parents for attending the shiva for a distant relative of theirs who recently died. As she talks with her parents, we gradually come to gather how much she feels pressured by her parents, who have expected a lot from her while having no idea on what their daughter has been doing behind her back for earning some extra cash.

Before entering the house where the shiva is being held, Daniella’s mother Debbie (Polly Draper) repeatedly emphasizes to Daniella on how she must behave and present herself well in front of many relatives and neighbors attending the shiva, and, not so surprisingly, that turns out to be not that easy for Daniella due to the appearance of Maya (Molly Gordon), who was once her girlfriend during their high school period. Looking more confident compared to Daniella, Maya is willing to present more of her promising current status in front of those relatives and neighbors attending the shiva, and Daniella, who does not have many things to boast about in comparison, understandably feels like being inadequate whenever others ask her about how she has been during recent years.

However, there soon comes a bigger trouble for Daniella when her ‘sugar daddy’ unexpectedly comes to the shiva. To her astonishment, her father Joel (Fred Melamed) actually knows this guy, and we accordingly get a series of hilariously cringe-inducing moments as both Daniella and this guy come to learn more about each other thanks to Daniella’s parents, who talk quite a lot about Daniella as well as him while not noticing at all what Daniella and he are barely hiding behind their seemingly formal appearance.

Naturally, Daniella wants to get out of the house as soon as possible, but, to our amusement, she keeps getting stuck in the house. While noticing that there is something odd about their daughter’s behaviors, Joel and Debbie are constantly busy with talking with other attendees willing to talk a lot with them, and Daniella is also often held by a number of many different relatives and neighbors who are not that close to her but eager to ask her a lot nonetheless.

Around that narrative point where another crucial character enters the picture, the circumstance becomes more complicated for Daniella, who becomes more confused about her thoughts and feelings for now. As reflected by their brief private moment in an upstairs bathroom, she is willing to go a little further with her sugar daddy, but then she also finds herself attracted to Maya again, who turns out to have some feelings toward her despite several years of estrangement between them.

Except a couple of moments of some respite, Seligman’s screenplay, which is expanded from her 2018 short film of the same title, pushes its heroine into more difficulty and embarrassment to endure during the second half. I will let you see for yourself how the movie eventually reaches its arrival point, but I can tell you instead on how skillfully Seligman and her crew members dial up the comic tension around Daniella. While you may not be surprised by a certain inevitable moment around the end of the story, that moment and the following scenes are handled with precise timing and admirable subtlety, and I particularly like when the final shot of the movie quietly but touchingly presents a little peace of mind for our very unlucky heroine.

It helps that the movie is carried well by the strong performance from Rachel Sennott, who was also the lead performer of Seligman’s 2018 short film. While effortlessly embodying her character’s growing anxiety and insecurity, Sennott is believable in several sincere moments including the one where Daniella and her mother happen to have an opportunity for some honest conversation, and she firmly holds the center even while, as reflected by the frequently neurotic string score by Ariel Marx, everything looks more chaotic and nightmarish around her increasingly vulnerable character.

Sennott is also supported well by a number of solid supporting performers around her. While Molly Gordon is convincing in her character’s dynamic interactions with Daniella along the plot, Molly Gordon and Fred Melamed have some juicy fun with their broad but colorful roles, and Danny Deferrari and Dianna Agron are also well-cast as two other substantial supporting characters in the story.

Overall, “Shiva Baby” is full of good comic moments to be savored, and Seligman makes an impressive feature film debut here while demonstrating well that she is a good filmmaker who knows how to handle story, mood, and characters well enough to engage and amuse us. In short, this is one of the funniest films of this year, and I think you really check it out as soon as possible.

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