In writer-director Emma Seligman’s hilarious, sneakily eruptive debut feature “Shiva Baby,” the acerbic Danielle is many things: an East Coast college senior majoring in gender studies; a young, bisexual Jewish woman; a sugar baby testing out the transactional powers of her sexuality. That last slice of her identity is a leap, but it’s the one we get to encounter first. In the film’s opening moments, Danielle’s fake whimpers draw near, soon resolving into an orgasm that sounds as cringingly phony as her moans. She gets dressed hastily at the end of the tryst, accepting an expensive bracelet and a wad of cash for her time from the older, generous Max (Danny Deferrari).
Despite the awkwardness in the air, the play between Danielle’s sarcastic edge and Max’s disheveled ease suggests they’ve done this before. She lies about needing the money to put herself through law school. He believes her, taking somewhat of an arrogant masculine gratification from helping her out. But to Danielle, portrayed by Rachel Sennott in a sharp performance of proud bitterness, sex work is only an experiment in feminist empowerment — deep down, a means to feeling in control of at least one aspect of her life. In other departments, Danielle seems to be rather directionless: Her supportive, liberal parents pay all her bills; she is unsure of her professional goals and prospects; and she’s in the limbo with her ex-lover Maya (Molly Gordon of “Booksmart” and “Good Boys,” with all her cheeky charisma), who’s the one really headed to law school.
On that same day, all the components of Danielle’s failure-to-launch mode close in on her at a crowded and unexpectedly eventful shiva gathering, a post-burial custom of mourning in Jewish tradition. Her mom Debbie (Polly Draper, delightfully witty) and father Joel (Fred Melamed, amiable as ever) can’t help but overtly critique Danielle’s ways and show their daughter off to a house full of close kin, desperately hoping to tie some loose ends in her life — perhaps a new babysitting gig (Danielle’s cover for her actual extracurricular occupation), or an office job of some sort, maybe even a new romantic interest. But “no funny business with Maya,” her mom warns Danielle more than once.
And indeed, Maya is there in attendance, irritating a still smitten Danielle by suggestively staring at her one minute, making a pointed, flirtatious remark the next. Defensively avoiding Maya while navigating a group of busybody aunts and neighbors who all seem to be obsessed with her weight loss (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps,” someone helpfully observes), Danielle fills up plates of food from the bagel- and lox-filled spread only to ignore them, hiding from anyone she’d rather steer clear of. Enter Max, the very sugar daddy she had slept with earlier, and to Danielle’s utter shock, Max’s beautiful, successful “shiksa princess” wife Kim (Dianna Agron, flawless) with their baby.
Accompanied by Ariel Marx’s brilliantly anxiety-inducing score — a restless dance of staccato guitar strings and high key piano notes — “Shiva Baby” increasingly amplifies its sense of claustrophobia, using discomfort and mistrust as the main methods of trepidation, projecting Danielle’s helplessness and humiliation with every prickly, fast-paced conversation. Think of this late-coming-of-age farce as a funny “Krisha” or the indoor apocalypse that takes place in “Mother!” — but with broken glass objects, a deafeningly screaming baby, a relentlessly suspicious wife and prying relatives instead of blood and guts — and you’ll get some sense of its edge-of-your-seat character.
Having grown up in a tight-knit Jewish community herself, Seligman tightly orchestrates it all with loving cultural specificity and nuance, working her satirical muscles to a thrilling extent. Even when she reaches for certain stereotypical clichés, her sense of humor maintains its unapologetic, insider-y confidence. Don’t hold it against “Shiva Baby” if it feels slightly stretched at times, despite clocking in at a compact 77 minutes. Previously told in Seligman’s 2018 short film of the same name, this story deserves no less than a feature-length playing field, and wouldn’t have been all that out of place in Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section. We love them for sure, but family can be scary stuff. By her film’s satisfying close, Seligman proves she gets the profound universality of that notion.
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