'Shiva Baby': Film Review | SXSW 2020

SXSW
'Shiva Baby'
A deftly crafted comedy of discomfort.

Emma Seligman's feature debut centers on a young woman forced to juggle her ex-girlfriend, older lover and pushy parents at the same Jewish funeral.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

Shiva Baby kicks off with an unpersuasive orgasm. "Yeah, Daddy," Danielle (Rachel Sennott) intones, the lack of conviction in her voice telegraphing the transactional nature of the coupling. Indeed, the "daddy" here is of the "sugar" variety — a suavely scruffy 30-something (Danny Deferrari) named Max, whom the NYU student is sleeping with for cash in this impressive feature debut from Emma Seligman.

Expanded from a short film, Shiva Baby eschews warm 'n' fuzzy indie quirk for a squirmier, sweatier approach to a now-familiar subgenre: the comedy of discomfort featuring the kind of sex-positive Jewish heroine seen in movies like Obvious Child and TV series like Broad City and Transparent. Danielle isn’t as exuberant or volubly eccentric as those characters (though Sennott does have the caustic edge and prowling sensuality of a young Amy Landecker, who played the eldest Pfefferman sibling on Transparent). But she exudes a sulky, frazzled radiance that grows on you.

Mercifully, she's also unburdened by the aggressive cuteness that often plagues this type of protagonist (call it Jessica Stein Syndrome, per 2001's similarly themed Kissing Jessica Stein). A gender studies major who pursues sex work less out of financial need (her parents pay her bills) than as an exercise in sexual empowerment — or perhaps just boredom — Danielle is, by movie standards, on the unlovable side: petulant, self-indulgent, at times insensitive. But she feels bracingly human, grounding this story of a young woman stumbling toward self-knowledge while shouldering burdens of community and culture — and being forced to play whack-a-mole with various embarrassments at the titular occasion. (A "shiva" is a Jewish post-funeral gathering at the home of the deceased.)

Shiva Baby takes the comfortingly shticky middle-class Jewish American setting — the shiva, with its sea of yarmulkes, patter of yentas (one of whom is played by Jackie Hoffman, natch) and bagel-and-lox buffet — and, like a softer, millennial spin on A Serious Man, injects it with a shot of creeping comic unease via the central character's crisis. The stakes aren't life-or-death and the preoccupations aren't philosophical — nor is the form as exactingly precise — as in that dagger-like Coen Brothers masterwork. Still, it's not a shabby comparison for a first film to conjure.

After a brief postcoital prologue in which Danielle has to remind Max to fork over her fee, Shiva Baby picks up with her arrival outside the shiva (a running joke has her confused about who died) to meet mother Debbie (Polly Draper) and father Joel (Fred Melamed). (Seligman leans hard on Jewish stereotypes — nagging mom, mortifying dad — but with actors this skilled, you go with it.)

Making the occasion especially awkward for Danielle is the presence at the shiva of her overachieving, law-school-bound ex, Maya (played with great sarcastic charisma by Booksmart's Molly Gordon). The way the film teases out their unfinished business is one of its slyest, most satisfying pleasures, thanks in large part to the actresses' spiky screwball chemistry. Danielle and Maya go at one another — each vocal-fried, "like"- and "literally"-littered line a poisoned dart — but their hostility can't conceal an aching mutual affection.

Between bouts of passive-aggressive warfare with Maya, Danielle grudgingly mingles, fielding comments and queries about her recent weight loss and relationship status. She also endures her mom dragging her around to schmooze with well-connected mourners who might be able to hook her up with a postgrad job. By some disastrous coincidence, one such mourner is sugar daddy Max, in attendance with his "shiksa princess" wife (Dianna Agron, perfect) and baby — neither of whom Danielle knew existed.

Danielle can't stop casting fidgety glances in Max's direction, at one point cornering him in the bathroom and coming on strong. But does she actually like him? Or is she just addicted to the naughtiness of their arrangement, or the sense of validation she derives from it? And where does Maya fit in to the grand scheme of Danielle's desires?

Shiva Baby is less interested in answers to those questions than in the head-spinning, knee-buckling, stomach-knotting stress of suddenly having to juggle the different versions of oneself — public and private, past and present, authentic and performed, idealized and real — that inevitably exist. Seligman isn't breaking new ground here, but she pulls us along with a deft hand, catching us up in the story's panicky accumulation of mishaps: a pair of ripped tights, a lost phone, a spilled cup of coffee, a burst of broken glass. Ariel Marx's anxiogenic score, with its nervous string plucking and piano plinking, both builds and punctuates the tension.

Seligman overcomes the setup's constraints and contrivances, as well as the on-the-nose-ness of some of her material, with the resourcefulness of her filmmaking. She and DP Maria Rusche play with depth of field and make purposeful use of the wideness of the frame to underline Danielle's psychological isolation. The editing is fluid and unfussy, the pacing crisp.

Anchoring it all is Sennott, deploying a stealthy, low-key timing that's perfectly suited to a character still struggling to figure out, and get comfortable with, who she is. The actress makes you lean in, her face a frequently blank canvas animated by sporadic squiggles of wit, neediness, resentment and longing that recede almost as soon as they appear.

Shiva Baby errs on the side of neatness, its strengths — its discipline and narrative economy — eventually registering as limitations, too. You may find yourself wishing the writer-director had taken more detours, or tangled more meaningfully with some of her larger themes — the clash of individual and collective identities, the pressures of tradition, the stifling normativity of even some liberal Jewish coastal circles. At the same time, frustration feels like a churlish response to a debut as assured as this one. Shiva Baby leaves you fully confident in the filmmaker's capacity to do even better next time — and excited to see what that looks like.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production companies: Dimbo Pictures, It Doesn't Suck Productions, Thick Media Productions, Bad Mensch Productions, Neon Heart Productions, Irving Harvey
Screenwriter-director: Emma Seligman
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Jackie Hoffman, Glynis Bell, Sondra James, Deborah Offner, Rita Gardner, Vivien Landau, Cilda Shaur

Producers: Emma Seligman, Kieran Altmann, Katie Schiller, Lizzie Shapiro
Executive producers: Rhianon Jones, Rachel Sennott, Martin Altmann, Fiona Altmann, Sue Collins, Victoria Ku
Director of photography: Maria Rusche
Production designer: Cheyenne Ford
Costume designer: Michelle Li
Editor: Hanna Park
Music: Ariel Marx
Casting: Kate Geller

77 minutes