REVIEW: The unsettling black comedy of “Shiva Baby”


(Emma Seligman/ Neon Heart Productions)

Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby (2020).

Stephen Lambros, Contributing Writer

The contained thriller isn’t a new idea in the general scope of cinema history. Many films have told the bulk of their stories within the constraint of a single time and location—comedies like “His Girl Friday,” dramas like “Malcolm & Marie” and science fiction stories like “Gravity” are all famous in part because of how the main beats of their story unfold over the course of a single day or night or even just a handful of hours. 

Most often, stories with this structure happen to be adaptations of plays, such as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” or “One Night in Miami”—of course, this may be why the black comedy and uncomfortable cringe of “Shiva Baby” is so readily reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Both stories’ jokes stem from misunderstandings caused by lies, but it’s the cinematic approaches utilized in “Shiva Baby” that set the film apart as a brazen new direction for contained thrillers and black comedies.

Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby (2020).
((Emma Seligman/ Neon Heart Productions))

 The film centers around a bisexual Jewish college student, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who attends a shiva with her family—shivas being gatherings that relatives of a recently deceased Jewish person all attend to mourn the loss and accept each other’s fellowship. Danielle doesn’t know or care who died, much to the chagrin of her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon). Danielle is in for a surprise, as her secret sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) is also there and the presence of his wife and baby threatens to unravel Danielle’s livelihood at its seams.

Written and directed by debut filmmaker Emma Seligman, “Shiva Baby” clocks in at 77 minutes and fails to waste a single second. The film hones in on Rachel Sennott’s vulnerable portrayal of Danielle, keeping in sync with her point of view and framing it with multiple camera techniques, including a raw close-up handheld camera and claustrophobic still-frame shots. The film dances around a well-developed ensemble of family members, both mocking their obliviousness and weaponizing it against Danielle’s security over her situation. The musical score by Ariel Marx, with its sharp, shrill violins bespeak of horror material, like the scores from “Hereditary” or “mother!”, and bleeds into the comedy to communicate to viewers just how nerve-wracking these hours at the shiva really are for Danielle.

Filmmakers and critics often point out how difficult it is to craft a film within strict temporal and special limitations. After all, the narrative of conveying high tension and drama within a very condensed location is what led “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson to an Oscar nomination for best director in 2015. But Seligman expertly utilizes the limited space of the house party where the shiva’s taking place, creating the tight effect of a net of trouble closing in on Danielle’s lie. The dialogue reveals the unwitting nature of the family members, oppressing Danielle with the threat of them finding out about her relationship with Max while also signifying their relationship with her. Most importantly, Seligma never forgets to frame Danielle in an empathetic light, even in the face of Danielle’s pervasive flaws.

In short, “Shiva Baby” is an innovative independent film that breathes new life into its subgenres—perhaps into the medium of film in and of itself. It is a delicious situational comedy that depicts its Jewish and bisexual communities in honest, complex and fascinating lights. The film is available on VOD platforms such as Google Play, AppleTV+, and Amazon Prime, and avid cinephiles would be remiss to skip it.