CAST: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron, Jackie Hoffman, Cilda Shaur, Glynis Bell, Sondra James, Deborah Offner, Vivien Landau, Ariel Eliaz
RUNNING TIME: 77 mins
BASICALLY…: A young woman (Sennott) runs into several anxious situations at a day-long family shiva…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Between Surge and Shiva Baby, there’s certainly not been a shortage of anxiety-inducing nervous breakdowns in cinema lately. As good as Surge is, though, writer-director Emma Seligman’s feature debut has the slight edge because, well, it’s pretty terrifying to watch the whole way through.
Seligman, who adapts and extends her 2018 short film of the same name, is a horror movie without it ever becoming a horror movie. It’s a 77-minute panic attack, all played out in real-time, at the most intrusive and judgemental place possible, and with further added elements just to make things infinitely worse for our main character. It even has the kind of musical score you would usually find in a movie like Get Out or Hereditary, just to make sure that you’re left completely and utterly disturbed throughout.
It’s hard to think of the last time I felt so stressed and unnerved during something that identifies as a comedy, but it is the natural strength of both the filmmaker and her film that it really sucks you in so much that you do genuinely feel just as pressurised and completely on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As an exercise in making you laugh as much as you are left gasping for air from fright, Shiva Baby really sets the bar incredibly high – and again, all from someone who’s technically a first-time filmmaker.
The film opens with Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young college student, having intimate relations with her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari). She’s soon rushing off to accompany her overbearing parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) to a shiva – basically, a Jewish gathering to mourn a passed relative – where she doesn’t even know the identity of the person who’s died. Already, Danielle is confronted with prying family members who are always asking what she’s been up to at college while also bludgeoning her with comments on her recent weight loss, but she is also on edge because her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is also in attendance, and is clearly more favoured by others than Danielle is, which leads to endless damning comparisons by her unfiltered peers, including her own mother and father. However, the real awkwardness kicks in when, all of a sudden, Max himself shows up to the shiva; not only that, but he’s also brought his wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their screaming infant daughter along with him.
As you can imagine, the feelings going on through Danielle’s head during the vast majority of this movie are nothing short of crippling, and it legitimately becomes uncomfortable to watch as she attempts to conceal her secret identity around people who have absolutely no problem revealing very intimate details about her to complete strangers. You can absolutely feel her entire world peeling away like flimsy wallpaper every time that she has to play cool in front of people, which given that it takes place almost entirely within this one house with what feels like hundreds of extras walking about the place, really does make up a large percentage of this movie. As a director and writer, Emma Seligman does a very impressive job of raising the pressure with each passing second, while also keeping a consistent mood and tone that can be very funny but also extremely nerve-racking at the same time; something as simple as two women staring at each other from a distance comes with an enormous weight of embarrassment and uneasy laughter, because the timing from these actors is acute and precise, while the boxed-in cinematography manages to convey a sense of awkwardness at all times.
Seligman also has a keen eye and ear for moments of complete and utter devastation and anxiety, which she utilises in order to make terrifying mini-set pieces that are possibly scarier than some of the more recent horror movies. There is a hint of Black Swan and mother!-era Darren Aronofsky in how the director builds and builds tension upon tension whenever Danielle’s secrets are constantly in danger of being exposed, either via flippant remarks by unassuming family members or by sheer bad luck like leaving her phone in the wrong place or even a number of incriminating texts chiming in on their sender all at once. Obviously, it never becomes as insane and chaotic as something like mother!, but Shiva Baby is one of those films that you can’t help but completely admire for how it takes something as routine as a family get-together, and makes it feel like the most heart-palpitating experience outside of the traditional horror genre, while also still being legitimately funny for most of it.
The actors, too, do such a great job of conveying their absolute fear and dread, nailing Seligman’s intentions while also injecting a bit of their own humanity into some very larger-than-life personalities. As our anxiety-drunk lead, Rachel Sennott is an absolute trooper to look as though she’s completely burnt out and just on the verge of passing out from her growing stress at all times, taking her flawed protagonist to dangerous levels of intensity that become too much for both her and the viewer to bare, but manages to hold it all together remarkably well. There are scenes where she and co-star Molly Gordon swap some curt exchanges as they attempt to break through to one another (the film is also a strong case of bisexual representation, in a minor win for the LGBTQ+ community), while she and her other co-star Danny Deferrari, as her about-to-shit-a-brick-at-any-moment sugar daddy Max, have such fun being so uneasy around each other that you’re half-expecting a shouting match to occur between them right there and then.
As soon as all the pressure is finally released – though not entirely, as one of the last things we hear is the piercing screaming of Max’s infant child – it comes as a relief, but also as a moment of admiration, because you appreciate how much this movie has tested your patience without crossing a line, and given you some rather great feelings of anxiety that are incredibly hard to replicate. It’ll be hard to find another non-horror film this year that leaves you with such dread and fear, but Shiva Baby does also succeed at masochistically leaving you wanting much, much more.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Shiva Baby is a tightly-wound and impressively crafted feature-length panic attack, which announces writer-director Emma Seligman as a potential bar-setter for intense and even horrific anxiety while also keeping things wildly funny.