Adapted from her 2018 short, Emma Seligman’s debut feature is a taut, stressful and brilliantly constructed chamber piece. Set during the first day of a shiva for a recently deceased family friend, Shiva Baby is ostensibly a comedy yet has all the tension of a thriller. At its most emotionally fraught, it uses the visual and aural grammar of horror cinema.
Recalled to the suburbs by her wealthy parents to attend the shiva of some unknown relative – ‘who died?’, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is that archetypal millenial: an aimless twentysomething with vaguely artistic aspirations, pecked at by older relatives to get a regular job and find a good husband while earning money through whatever means she can. The opening scene – the only one not set at the shiva – establishes that she is sleeping with older man Max (Danny Deferrari) in the city, for which he is apparently paying her. How explicit the transactional nature of their relationship is isn’t entirely clear, leading to complications later.
Still, the arrangement broadly seems to be working for Danielle, who so far has been able to keep her real life and her suburban persona – in which she tells her parents that she babysits for a living – separate. Until, horror of horrors, Max not only arrives at the shiva but with a hitherto unknown wife and baby in tow. While the older women delight in tutting at the faux pas of bringing a baby to a shiva (imagine!) Danielle goes into barely-concealed meltdown, batting away assessments of her weight by clucking older relatives and the incessant references by her mother (a brilliantly brittle Polly Draper) to Danielle’s sexual “experimenting” with old school friend Maya (Molly Gordon).
Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, Molly is at the shiva too. Thus, Shiva Baby layers stress upon stress, adding more and more emotional plates to spin until eventually, inevitably they all come crashing down. Molly is arguably the key to the whole film, at once Danielle’s frenemy and a comrade-in-arms, the only person who truly knows her and the only one capable of offering any kind of comfort.
There is a symbolic cacophony to it all, made manifest by the plucked strings of Ariel Marx’s score and the brilliant, maddening sound design, layering Marx’s stabbing music and a growing diegetic clutter to breaking point. Meanwhile, cinematographer Maria Rusche drains the colour out of the room in moments of emotional exhaustion. Later, in a sequence of lurching dread after Danielle loses her phone containing a compromising photo, faces are saturated in sickly yellows and in wide-lens close-ups, become satirically grotesque as they gorge on vol au vents.
Comedy and horror are often described as being the only cinematic genres that provoke a physical reaction; we are supposed to scream at horror and laugh at comedy. But just as horror cinema can be thrilling and fun, the best comedy is often a nail-biting experience. What, perhaps, unites them is their shared modes of catharsis, finding expression in either the scream or the laugh. Shiva Baby conflates the two into a single point of expression and in so doing, offers a kind of catharsis in its final depiction of quietly shared endurance.