'Shiva Baby': Rachel Sennott Kills in This Hilarious Comedy of Errors

By Kurt Loder

April 2, 2021 5 min read

Somebody died. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) isn't sure who — somebody in her extended family, a second-wife's sister or something — but her parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), are all upset, and she's promised them she'll make it to the funeral. Or at least to the post-funeral shiva, for the traditional Jewish ritual of light mourning, extended eating and nonstop gossiping. It's the least she can do. Literally.

But no sooner does Danielle arrive at the gathering than she sees that her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is also there. And — oh, God, no — so is the beardy Max (Danny Deferrari), the older "sugar daddy" she was boffing for money maybe an hour ago. (This "sugar daddy" thing isn't what you may think — it's empowering! ). Thus begins the worst day of Danielle's life. So far.

Writer-director Emma Seligman's first feature is a knockout wallop of talent and personality. Her story, about an aimless young woman adrift in a battering sea of sex and social humiliation, starts out funny and grows much funnier as it rolls along from one cringe-triggering situation to the next (in a tight 77-minute runtime, too). And Sennott, whose soulful, sleepy-eyed features register fleeting emotional shifts in a seamless procession, is extraordinary. Her Danielle is an aimless college student on the brink of graduation, who hasn't learned a lot in the last four years. She is entirely supported by her parents, which has allowed her to dabble in arty pursuits ("You still do those little videos?" asks an older woman) and major in "gender." ("So you can run marches? With, like, the pink p—— hat?")

Danielle and Maya were childhood friends who grew up to be bi and go to their high school prom together. Their relationship was sundered not long ago, for reasons unexplained. Now Maya is on her way to law school, while Danielle has nothing penciled in on her real-life dance card. She's wracked by insecurity, and running into Maya and her bright future is the last thing she needs. It also doesn't help that Max — good-looking, suavely well-to-do Max — has turned up, too. Worse yet, he's accompanied by a beautiful wife (Dianna Agron of "Glee"), whom Danielle never knew he had, and a squalling infant similarly unsuspected.

This setup ensures awkward conversations whenever Danielle, gulping wine and scurrying from room to room, fails to evade these people. Along the way, she's accosted by well-meaning relatives doing their best to make her feel worse — even her mother, who continues a long-running campaign to force her vegetarian daughter to eat real food. ("You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps.")

The movie was shot entirely in a single house in Brooklyn, and cinematographer Maria Rusche navigates the actor-packed rooms with impressively smooth precision. There's also a score composed of austerely plucked strings that adds a subtle tension to several scenes.

And then there's Seligman's taut script, which doesn't waste a word in bringing its characters thoroughly to life. When Debbie worries that Danielle might be getting back together with Maya, she says, "I thought you were done experimenting."

"You think everyone who's bi is experimenting," Danielle says. "You have zero gaydar."

"I lived through New York in the '80s," Debbie says. "My gaydar is as strong as a bull."

 Photo credit Maria Rusche.
Photo credit Maria Rusche.

Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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