Structure is everything in Emma Seligman’s feature directorial debut, “Shiva Baby”. Danielle, a liberal arts undergraduate who is struggling to adjust to the demands of post-graduation adulthood and the “real world”, is pushed to a day of error. In the sharp, uncomfortable comedy, shiva – a Jewish post-funeral rite – becomes the setting for a series of increasingly awkward and unwelcome conflicts. Danielle is dragged into the shiva, unsure of how she knows the deceased, by her well-meaning and ambitious parents. In the shiva, she has to stop the inquiries about her main career, her planned career, avoid her ex-boyfriend (who everyone knows), avoid her current sugar daddy (who no one knows about) and confront his wife and new baby (whom she does not know). All this while trying to navigate the necessary contrition in grieving for the deceased.
With the exception of a few opening scenes, most “Shiva Baby” takes place inside and outside a suburban house where the shiva is held. The setting is an essential dramatic and structural tool that establishes the central crisis for Danielle – she is addicted. There is a well-known distortion to capture the main character in shiva. The post-funeral rites become a provocative symbol of Danielle’s own funeral. With the exception of body alone, Danielle has her whole life and mental stability to grieve for.
Like any comedy relying on unfortunate situations and realizations, “Shiva Baby” delights in the build phase. As each new character is introduced (or re-introduced), revealing a different aspect of Danielle’s misfortune, “Shiva Baby” becomes more tension and uncomfortable. For much of the film we stay with Danielle by Rachel Sennott, who has to navigate through a series of specific emotions that carry the film’s emotional crisis. This kind of fringe comedy relies on a performance rooted in no self-awareness and Sennott is specifically familiar with the demands of Seligman’s dramatic intentions here. Each scene in a row removes the illusion of a well-adjusted young adult that the opening scene teases us with. But maladministration is not the source of ridicule. Instead, as “Shiva Baby” invites us to the pathetic reality of Danielle’s life, Seligman (she writes and directs the film) walks a great line by encouraging us to wink at Danielle’s own lack of self-awareness but sympathize with her penchant for bad decision making.
What turns “Shiva Baby” into something even more insightful is the way Seligman does not embed her comedy in the script but in filmmaking precisely. When we talk about world-building in films, especially lately, we talk about it in the context of sci-fi or fantasy work that has a responsibility to make us believe in untapped worlds. But building the world is just as essential in films that aim for elements of realism, and what’s amazing about the “Shiva Baby” is the effectiveness of building that world in just 77 minutes. There is no second waste here, but it is even more important that the short running time does not affect what feels like a fulsome and unique story.
Seligman understands these characters but she also understands this place and uses that information alongside the camerawork to rely on our expectations. And Maria Rusche’s cinematography and Hanna A. Park’s editing are great assets. By the time we meet all the players at the halfway point, the camera is starting to do a kind of dance throughout the cast – avoiding some figures, and following others. By the final third of the film, the camerawork shifts from provocative exploitation to something like thriller and then horror. We are scared to watch, and the camera is still looking for sequences that feel more seductive with each passing moment. It builds slowly to tension that is compelling and kinetic.
It’s a sign of good comedy that “Shiva Baby” is getting better – more perceptive, more nervous, more thoughtful – as it goes on. Its precedent may suggest a comedy that relies on the awkward ingenuity of its inception, but in each successive scene it shifts to something that resists flatness. There is a sharp opposition to irony disconnection, even as Danielle retreats to her own self-alert tendencies – Seligman is mocking but not unkind. Even as the film hears close to Danielle’s perspective, Seligman is insightful enough to separate that disillusionment from the film’s own point of view aesthetically or psychologically. It means that the film really engages in a study of its character in an allocation that is enduring but also extremely thoughtful.
There is no sense of carelessness or ad-hoc construction here. Instead, “Shiva Baby” is defined by worthwhile intentionality and specificity, especially in the midst of so much contemporary comedy that usually throws so many possible options against a wall to see what sticks. Even as chance encounters of this terrible shiva define Danielle’s day, Seligman’s work here is defined by how thoughtful he is. And just when you think she’s too perverse for her own sake, she saves the most urgent and promising scene at the end, while still effectively mining the foibles of these characters. It’s a charming and precise triumph of comedy.
Shiva Baby is available for streaming and on demand through Prime Video, iTunes, and other streaming platforms.