If you’ve seen any of the chat around Shiva Baby in the run-up to its release on these shores, you might have noticed the idea that it’s a horror film coming up a lot. It is, of course, not a horror film. It’s a comedy with an old-fashioned premise, albeit framed in a unique setting. Rachel Sennott is Danielle, a directionless 20-something who attends a shiva with her overbearing parents, only to discover, to her horror, that both her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend are also in attendance. The ensuing hour and a bit is sharp and witty and pacy, and just a very good, effortlessly modern take on a farce, or perhaps a comedy of manners, with a generous helping of the kind of social awkwardness realism that seems to appeal to us artsy dweebs with MUBI accounts (where the film is being released in Ireland and the UK).
And yet, while I think there’s an extent to which the meme about it being horror is sort of a joke about the hideous awkwardness of the situation Danielle finds herself in, it’s impossible not to notice the more tangible influences of the genre on Shiva Baby. Most obvious of these is the soundtrack, which is all screeching and jagged, and there’s also the claustrophobia of the setting, and how well that’s conveyed by writer and director Emma Seligman. The way the camera constantly seems to be lurking slightly too closely to Danielle, and how every room in the house seems jammed with mourners without it ever coming across as forced or artificial, is so impressive and effective.
It was of course Jean-Paul Sartre who coined the phrase “hell is other people, but especially babies, babies are uniquely fucking dreadful, I, Jean-Paul Sartre, hate babies,” and Seligman goes all-in on that iconic musing by giving Danielle’s sugar daddy Max not only a stunningly attractive wife but also a howling, insatiably distressed infant, who adds to the sense of cacophony in the background, without it feeling particularly cheap or obvious what Seligman is doing. It’s what Shiva Baby does really well, relying on these quite familiar tropes, not using them particularly subtly, and yet still somehow conjuring a film that feels fresh and vital.
Part of that is the way that these horror beats are transplanted wholesale in service of humour and pathos, rather than terror. Part of it is how a movie as densely populated as Shiva Baby has arrived in the aftermath of a global pandemic, where we’ve had to double down on the importance of people not getting all up in your grill. And part of it is in the lean 77-minute runtime, meaning the film’s blunt approach to its subject matter doesn’t wear thin.
Most importantly though, Shiva Baby is just really good. It has a great script, delivered by a talented director and cast. Sennott’s performance as Danielle is the sort of thing you could see her replicating in much more grandiose, bigger budget films in the future. She basically spends the movie getting pied in the face repeatedly, with the camera lingering on her as she slowly wipes all the custard and cream off, yet she never loses a basic dignity, and always feels like a real person stoically trying to navigate an all too plausible nightmare.
It’s hard not to be impressed with Sennott’s performance considering the camera is literally never off her. It should also be noted, however, that the supporting cast put a real shift in. They’re also walking a tightrope in that all of them serve as antagonists at different points in the film, yet none, with the exception of Max, are actively callous; indeed, many of them love Danielle, and if that didn’t come through as clearly, Shiva Baby would be much less likeable.
Molly Gordon as Danielle’s ex-girlfriend Maya, and Polly Draper and Fred Melamed as Danielle’s mother and father, deserve particular credit for managing to contain multitudes. None of them feel two-dimensional, even though embarrassing parents, and an ex-partner that’s doing irritatingly brilliantly, are characters as old as time. They nail the comic aspects of the story, and the more tender moments as well.
Don’t let the horror score and the withering sense of humour trick you into thinking this isn’t a film with a beating heart; it’s also a genuine, if unconventional, celebration of Jewish culture, and of the redemptive value of family and romance in a world that wants to value you for more surface-level achievements, like your career and your appearance. Although, it’s also not as nauseatingly sentimental as I’ve probably just made it sound.
I was acutely aware, thinking about writing this review, that I’m not a young, bisexual Jewish woman, and so there’s an extent to which my thoughts on the resonance of this film should be taken with a pinch of salt. I don’t think Shiva Baby is one of my favourite films I’ll see this year. There will be comedies that will provide me, personally, with more laugh-out-loud moments and genuine joy, and less scenes where I’m watching from behind my fingers. While I also favour a nice, short film, I actually think perhaps 77 minutes undersells what the movie is trying to do a bit – there could have been more emotional intensity with another ten or fifteen minutes to breathe.
Still, Shiva Baby is a film that’s hard not to admire, and it’s very much worthy of the hype it’s received, both as a comedy, and perhaps as a peculiarly low-stakes horror as well. It’s a film stuffed with talent, that tells a simple story in a distinctive way. If you like gallows humour and coming-of-age stories where people don’t quite manage to come of age, you’ll get an awful lot out of all 77 minutes of this.