Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a young bisexual Jewish woman, traipsing through life going through a phase of self-defeat as she essentially performs sex work for money; all under the guise of sexual empowerment excused by her gender studies degree. The mindset of Danielle is set up in a succinctly and hilariously tired fashion as she has sex with her suitor/sugar daddy Max (Dan Deferrari), complete with unenthused orgasms from the former.
Danielle is reluctantly invited to a shiva (defined as a Jewish gathering post-funeral set at the house of the deceased) by her parents Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). She figures that she will blow through the time with a few awkward greetings, a couple of how-you-doin’s and be on her way. But things get complicated when she notices her overachieving law school graduate ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) in attendance. To make matters worse, Max shows up and he brings his shiksa (defined as a non-Jewish woman) entrepreneur wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their baby. Will Danielle get out of this one with her sanity intact?
Shiva Baby is a comedy that is best described as the cinematic equivalent of a ticking time bomb; a tension-filled laugh riot where every single second witnessed will induce both unease, embarrassment and hilarity and even poignant self-reflection. The script by writer/director Emma Seligman lays all the conflicts and fears that Danielle faces into place – unemployment, self-doubt, estrangement from family and friends, finding a new partner – and she wrings the comedic juice and suspense from all of those things.
The technical values all manage to improve the comedy extremely well. The intricate editing by Hanna A. Park navigates the shifts in tone, keeps the pacing in check and improves the timing of the comedic players, who breathe such palpable passive-aggressiveness. The stellar cinematography by Maris Rusche vividly portrays Danielle’s mindset as the house setting around her becomes more and more claustrophobic i.e. in certain scenes Danielle becomes more and more out of focus while others in the frame become dominant. The sharp musical score by Ariel Marx puts you on edge with the use of stringed instruments and hard-hitting piano notes; adding to the build-up when the pressure starts closing in on Danielle.
The cast do wonders with the material, in that they not only sink their teeth into the film with such enthusiasm; their work makes their characters transcend their restrictive stereotypes: i.e. the nagging mum, the intrusive dad, the arrogant lothario. Standouts include Sennott, who brilliantly displays all of the neuroses of Danielle – the longing, the desperation, the struggle – with breathtaking nuance. Her struggle to go back and forth from her best self to her honest self is almost heartbreaking to watch.
Gordon is charming as Maya who wields her baseball bat of sarcasm like a pro. Their chemistry is so enjoyable because even underneath their barbed interplay, there is a sense of tempered joie de vivre that is just enjoyably infectious. Both Draper and Melamed are fun to watch and instil much-needed humanity to keep their roles from becoming annoying stereotypes while Agron is perfect as Kim, who manages to tiptoe the line between stolid and privileged.
One of the best things about the comedy genre is that even though the end result will always result in levity, there can be a level of suspense and tension that goes in getting to that end result that can rival the best in drama and horror. Writer/director Seligman manages to bottle that tension and create one of the funniest films of 2020 with Shiva Baby. Highly recommended.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Shiva Baby screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place mostly digitally this year. For more details head to tiff.net.