This article also appeared at The Film Experience on April 6.
Part cringe-comedy nightmare dripping with passive aggressiveness and part look at the complexity of modern sexuality and relationships, director Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby shows a unique perspective on attending a party from hell.
Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a college senior who starts her day having sex with her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferarri) before heading off to a shiva with her parents Joel and Debbie (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper). Danielle is a college senior with no real prospects after graduation and she knows this will be a frequent topic of conversation among the party-goers. She trudges on, but sees Maya (Molly Gordon), her high school girlfriend as the belle of the ball being lauded over among the many guests.
Debbie wants Danielle to focus on her future and uses the party as an excuse to try to get her a job. One of those outlets is Max, who used to work with Joel. The two play dumb and attempt to assuage any suspicions, but things get more complicated when Max’s wife Kim (Diane Agron) shows up with their infant daughter.
From there, Danielle is suffocated with patronizing comments about her future from seemingly every new person in this endless maze of a house. The only place with any sort of solace is the bathroom, and even that brief amount of peace is quickly interrupted by a knock on the door for the next person’s turn. As soon as she is back in the labyrinth, more people keep commenting on her weight or she is passively involved in Debbie talking about the cute new rabbi.
Maya hovers around Danielle as well, trying to connect and awkwardly interject when she realizes something is up with Danielle and Max. Maya’s brief smoke break that Danielle joins is the few respites from cringe that gives the film a glimmer of hope and peace. When returning to the claustrophobic house, the minimalist score ticks and twangs to unsettle the viewer and Danielle ever the more.
Sennott’s frenetic performance guides everything. Danielle never feels comfortable and Sennott fidgets enough to show the discomfort, but not enough to turn it into a tick. Her mind is scattered, but she is not ashamed. She shows no regret or remorse for her education, and more importantly her sexuality. The older people play off her bisexuality as “experimenting” while Danielle plows forward without the expositional blowup. Sennott does not play Danielle as trying to get through the shiva, but more of a life she is trying to endure.
Gordon plays a fun romantic foil to Sennott, as someone who knows exactly what she wants in life and how to go about getting it. Her warmth and likeability play in stark contrast to most other party guests. Deferarri expertly balances a level of sleaze with a level of adult respectability. Max could have devolved into a stock villain very easily and Deferarri keeps enough under the surface to avoid questioning his motives. Meanwhile, Agron is mostly a figurehead of a woman, but performs the same balancing act that Deferarri plays. It would have been easy to reduce Kim down to a steely ice queen, but Agron complicates her enough to forgo that assumption and plant enough seeds to believe it nonetheless.
Polly Draper gives my favorite performance, swinging between the stereotypical judgey mother to an understanding shoulder to cry on for Danielle. She is simultaneously frustrating, loving, horny and relaxed as a woman who just wants her daughter to succeed. Melamed plays against type as the more warm and understanding of Danielle’s parents and he conveys more of a bumbling doofus than that of someone who judges. The two parents play well off each other.
Shiva Baby shows great promise for Seligman and Sennott and at just 77 minutes, the film tightly navigates the world of expectations and human growth. Both women are great talents to keep on eye on.