Shiva Baby Review

Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is a caustic comedy about attending a traditional post-burial brunch, taking the tropes of Jewish family life in directions that feel much like a beautifully realized horror film as well as an eloquent and often hilarious look at a hapless millennial navigating parental and cultural expectation.

We meet Danielle (Rachel Sennott) in flagrante delicto, grinding noisily against the curly haired Max (Danny Deferrari). As she leaves to attend “a brunch”, her sugar daddy gives her money for her time, establishing their connection as anything other than ordinary.

When Danielle arrives at the shiva with her gormless parents (the exquisitely cast Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), she first runs into Maya (Molly Gordon), with whom she used to have a close friendship. After having cheeks pinched and questions asked about her future by the myriad of middle-aged and older women that populate such events, Danielle is horrified when Max walks in with Kim (Dianna Agron, a perfectly realized shiksa out of central casting) and their newborn child.

With the ingredients of a farce in place, Seligman’s script ups the discomfort to 11, making Danielle’s struggles feel very much our own. Sennott’s sympathetic performance feels both real and frustrating, embodying exactly the kind of aimless twenty-something that can’t commit to what or who she loves. It’s a deft portrayal that’s so exquisitely realized that it’s practically a documentary about suburban Jewish experience. I for one could practically taste the bagels and feel the guilt-ridden banter cut to the bone. Despite the precision of its portrayal of this community, the film still speaks in universal terms to this awkward age and the lies we often tell ourselves just to get by.

Shiva Baby’s brisk 77 minute running time means the film never overstays its welcome, despite the fact that it’s literally a film about desperately wanting to leave. It’s all the more remarkable that this is Seligman’s debut, as it’s freed from much of the bloat that often burdens such initial projects. Instead, we get an often brilliant meditation on mendacity and self-delusion, all while circumnavigating the myriad pitfalls of early adulthood. 

Sullen, sarcastic, silly and seductive at various times, the film manages to walk a high-wire act of tone, making the act of mourning the least miserable part of the family gathering. Credit to Seligman and her team, Shiva Baby packs quite the punch. Thanks to a committed cast and sharp script, this discomforting funereal farce proves there’s lots to bite into – lox, stock and barrel.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.