by George Wolf
“You can’t just show up for the after party for a shiva, and like, reap the benefits of the buffet.”
Twentysomething Danielle (Rachel Sennott – irresistible) is definitely guilty of skipping the actual funeral (she doesn’t even know who died!), but if there are benefits to the after party, she isn’t reaping them. It’s awkward enough that her former flame Maya (Molly Gordon) is there, but that’s hardly the worst of it.
To her horror, Danielle sees that Max (Danny Deferarri) is there, too. Max is Danielle’s sugar daddy, and look, he brought his beautiful wife (Dianna Agron) and their cute baby daughter!
With Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman expands her 2018 short film for a feature debut full of observational comedy, mounting anxiety and a strangely appealing sexiness. Imagine the Coen Brothers rebooting Uncut Gems as a coming-of-age sex comedy, and you get an idea of the tonal tightrope Seligman is able to command.
The film’s opening finds Danielle confident and alluring. By the end of the day, she’s an unkempt, sweaty mess of beverages, blood and embarrassment. Almost all of Danielle’s arc takes place inside the home of the bereaved, and Seligman makes sure that is a hilariously uncomfortable place to be.
Danielle’s parents (the ever-reliable Fred Melamed and a scene-stealing Polly Draper) pressure her to work the room for job contacts, family friends inquire about her post-college plans, Molly wonders why Danielle ghosted her, and Max’s wife is getting suspicious.
And through it all, Seligman’s camera draws in closer and closer, making Danielle’s darkly comic claustrophobia almost palpable.
Clearly, much of Seligman’s sharp dialog comes from personal experience, and if it’s one you share this is a film that will feel like part of the family. But you didn’t have to be Greek to get caught up in that Big Fat Wedding, and you don’t have to be Jewish to see the joy in Shiva Baby.
Seligman flashes an insight that disarms you with sex and humor, keeping its hand at a subtle distance. But by the time we’re leaving that buffet, a breakout filmmaker and star have delivered a fresh, funny and intimate take on the indignities of finding yourself.