There’s a huge subgenre of horror films that feature some comedic elements, but Shiva Baby feels like one of the rare comedies that is secretly a horror film. Every moment is an overwhelming barrage on the senses, so painfully awkward that it takes cringe comedy to a ghoulish extreme. Unconventional in approach and refreshingly slight in runtime, director Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is an ode to all of our messiest friends, pushing the boundaries of what a female-centered comedy can look like.
Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is your run-of-the-mill college senior struggling to decide what to do with the rest of her life while surrounded by smotheringly supportive family members and hyper-ambitious peers who seem to have it all figured out. The one thing about her that’s a little outside the norm is that she’s a sugar baby who provides sex and companionship to men in exchange for financial support. And hey, no harm, no foul: she gets a little extra money, and no one ever has to know about it. That is until her parents rope her into attending a post-funeral shiva for a family friend.
Now, this would be something of an ordeal even under the best of circumstances. Having a crowd full of nosey relations and acquaintances just dying to know what your plans are for after college (such a casual question, with such massive implications) is hardly the recipe for a relaxing afternoon. So just imagine how terrible it would be if you were barely surviving that disaster when all of a sudden, the man you were secretly having sex with mere hours ago walks in the door. Of course, he’s a family friend, and a former employee of your father, and a married man with an infant daughter, because when has life ever been fair?
So anyway, the point is that it’s understandable that Danielle would be thrown for a loop. And what Rachel Sennott really drives home is just how overwhelmed she is (to comically exaggerated proportions) while also showing hints of a deeper emotional reaction that goes far beyond the sort of sitcom, comedy of errors plot. For one, it’s clear that she’s defensive about her lack of professional job prospects, while also being unwilling to commit to a traditional office job she knows she’ll hate just to appease her family. But she also craves her parents’ approval, as much as she constantly tries to brush them off, and is terrified at the prospect of them finding out what she’s been doing as a side gig. She has stereotypically well-intentioned yet overbearing parents, but in her mother Debbie (Polly Draper), especially, we see the compelling portrait of a woman who can sense that there’s something bothering her daughter and desperately wants to communicate with her, only to be brutally rebuffed.
It’s also worth pointing out how easily this entire film could have slipped into romantic comedy territory — Shiva Baby resists these kinds of saccharine impulses. And a lot of credit for that should go to Danny Deferrari as Max, Danielle’s married, older paramour. He plays the character as just scummy enough to prevent there from being any major sparks between him and Danielle, while at the same time leaving him not completely unlikeable. Really, the crux of Shiva Baby’s romance is not Danielle and Max, but rather Danielle and Maya (Molly Gordon), she somewhat estranged high school sweetheart. Their relationship is clearly not the strongest it’s ever been, but they have a tremendous sense of history, and the energy that exists between them is palpable. Perhaps most importantly, they both have an understanding of what it means to be a part of their shared community and are willing to support one another when things become just too much like they do at this fateful shiva.
Because of Shiva Baby’s unrelenting willingness to humiliate its lead character and put her through the wringer, there are more than a few moments that are best watched through fingers covering your eyes. The level of anxiety it provokes is certainly not for the faint of heart. But Shiva Baby excels as it pushes through the awkwardness with the single-minded determination of just getting through this one day, this one social event, this one interaction, that we can all relate to.