Shiva Baby is a movie with a perfect logline: a sugar baby runs into both her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend while sitting shiva (a period of mourning following a Jewish funeral) with her parents. As written and directed by first-time filmmaker Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby, out in select theaters and VOD on today, is a comedy, but it’s shot and scored like a horror movie, a panic-inducing vertiginous spiral. The tension starts high, and keeps ratcheting up: The titular baby, Danielle (played by Internet favorite Rachel Sennott) is surrounded by a claustrophobic array of nosy relatives at the shiva, where she exchanges thinly-veiled barbs with her ex, Maya (Molly Gordon) and finds out that her daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), is married to a shiksa goddess (Jewish actor Dianna Agron), an imperious blonde entrepreneur who pronounces “rugelach” like “arugula.”
“THE MOVIE WAS HIGHLY TRIGGERING AND ANXIETY-INDUCING,” a fellow Chosen Person texted after a viewing.
In a phone interview, the director, 25, said she felt her movie was going to “ride or die on anxiety.” Danielle is interrogated—about her career path, weight, and dating life—so aggressively that she volunteers to clean up toddler vomit just to escape. Danielle stumbles around the house, picking up stray plastic cups of wine and eating off of other people’s plates. (Approximately every three minutes an older female relative asks if she’s starving herself; in the words of her mother, Debbie, played by raspy-voiced legend Polly Draper: “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way.”) In the spirit of all North American Jewish affairs, food is a focal point—everyone is constantly asking uncomfortable questions with their mouths full. Danielle escapes to the buffet to finger stale-looking pastries, sandwiches filled with mayonnaise-y salads, gloopy pasta. She coughs up a bagel with lox when she overhears Max tell her parents that he and his wife have a baby, a beautiful, blonde, ceaselessly screaming infant with sharp-looking teeth.
Shiva Baby may ride or die on anxiety, but its great strength is in its specificity. Seligman, who first conceived of the film as an undergrad at NYU, where an earlier version became her senior thesis, says that every line of dialogue from an older person was lifted from family events she attended in her hometown of Toronto. She is a sharp observer; Shiva Baby is extremely Jewish (there’s one stretch where you hear the words schmutz, putz, schlong, and schtup in the span of about thirty-five seconds), but it doesn’t veer into the cartoonish. The jokes, especially the dark ones, always land. “Oh wow, you guys are at the Holocaust Museum,” Danielle says, looking at photos on a bubbe’s iPhone. “You look so… happy.”