Whenever you think that Jewish humor is tapped out, someone else comes along and hauls something new up out of the mine. Shiva Baby opens at the Grand Berry Theater this weekend, and even if you’ve watched the works of Woody Allen, Judd Apatow, and Rachel Bloom, this movie proves to be something else again.
The story is largely set at a Jewish funeral outside New York, to which college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is essentially dragged by her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper). Among the mourners is her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), whom she hasn’t spoken to since they broke up. The lesbian relationship is an open secret among the crowd — a secret secret is the fact that Danielle is earning extra money by having sex with an older publishing guy named Max (Danny Deferrari). Her sugar daddy is also attending the shiva, which is the first of many unpleasant surprises that will rain down on Danielle’s head.
How’s this for Jewish guilt? In the first 15 minutes of this film, Danielle is shamed by Maya for eating at the shiva when she barely knew the deceased, and then shamed by her mom and her mom’s friends for not eating. Apparently, Danielle has lost a lot of weight recently, and she finally snaps, “Do you want me to get on a scale?” Everyone ignores her, and the shaming continues. If it’s not about her weight, it’s about her gender-studies major, to which everyone responds with some variation of “But that’s not really a career, is it?” She cuts her leg on a piece of furniture and has coffee spilled on her, but she doesn’t help herself by drinking too much wine, posing for and sending a topless selfie in the bathroom, and then losing her phone. Looking at someone else’s photo: “Oh, you guys were at the Holocaust museum! You look so happy!” Just to top everything off, Max’s baby keeps screaming — somehow he neglected to mention the existence of his child or his wife (Dianna Agron), who immediately catches on to what’s going on between him and Danielle.
First-time feature filmmaker Emma Seligman (a 25-year-old former film critic) adapts this from a similarly titled short film that she made for her thesis at NYU, and she shoots this social gathering in a truly oppressive way, with close-ups of Danielle’s sweaty face while her parents’ infantilizing and Maya’s passive-aggressive remarks reverberate in her ear and Ariel Marx’s string score pops and squeaks. Rightly, people have compared this to Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha in its use of cinematic techniques to make a party setting reflect the emotional hell that the fragile Danielle has fallen into. Sennott reprises her role from the short film, and here she’s more firmly locked into her character as someone who’s trading sex for money not because she needs the cash but as a way of rebelling against her suffocating parents.
I do wish there had been more of a payoff to all this. The stage is set for an explosion of chaos and Seligman simply lets it go off the boil, and the movie doesn’t end so much as stop at a random point. Danielle dances up to the edge of busting Max to his wife, but that doesn’t lead anywhere. I think we’re supposed to root for Danielle to get back together with Maya, but they’re so horrible to each other that it’s impossible. Even with all this, Seligman’s dexterity, technical chops, and ability to evoke shpilkes for laughs in Shiva Baby make her a comic talent to watch out for.
Starring Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, and Molly Gordon. Written and directed by Emma Seligman. Rated R.