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Rachel Sennott wonders whether to eat that bagel and lox in "Shiva Baby."

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.

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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.

Shiva Baby
Starring Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, and Molly Gordon. Written and directed by Emma Seligman. Rated R.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Yet another racist movie, where Jewish Dianna Agron plays a non-Jewish character because she’s pretty, as a contrast to Jewish characters played by non-Jewish Rachel Sennott, Polly Draper, and Danny Deferrari!

    Actors with two Jewish parents: Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bar Refaeli, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Adam Brody, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Erin Heatherton, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Gregg Sulkin, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Esti Ginzburg, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Margarita Levieva, James Wolk, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Michael Vartan, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Julian Morris, Asher Angel, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Dan Hedaya, Emory Cohen, Corey Haim, Scott Mechlowicz, Harvey Keitel, Odeya Rush, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of his parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Timothée Chalamet, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Judah Lewis, Brandon Flynn, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jewish and/or identify as Jewish: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron, David Corenswet, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Andrew Garfield, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr., Sean Penn, and Ed Skrein were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer, Chris Pine, Emily Ratajkowski, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Finn Wolfhard are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

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