Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby ★★★★½

If the Safdie Brothers' hard-hitting crime drama Uncut Gems was like watching an anxiety attack on film, Emma Seligman has one-upped them with Shiva Baby, which is full-blown cinematic panic disorder. It seems as if it would be impossible for any viewer to watch Seligman's film without squirming in their seat. What makes the uncomfortableness bearable and entirely worthwhile is how thoroughly humorous Shiva Baby is. "Cringe comedy" has rarely, if ever, been better accomplished in movie form.

Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a college student who reluctantly attends a shiva for a family friend, only to find herself overwhelmed by people she would rather avoid. It's awkward enough that Danielle's kooky relatives and her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) are in attendance, but so too is her "sugar daddy" Max (Danny Deferrari). Unbeknownst to Danielle, who met Max on an app, he is related to the deceased. More alarmingly, he has a wife, ambitious entrepreneur Kim (Dianna Agron), and they are the parents of a newborn.

Danielle is guilty of making questionable decisions in her life, and even worse ones throughout the shiva. However, the very reason Shiva Baby is such a tense viewing is because her plight is relatable (if not the exact circumstances) and will provoke empathy from anyone who has been trapped in a similarly unpleasant gathering. As Danielle suffers, we experience second-hand anxiety on her behalf. Seligman further enhances the social discomfort by expertly deploying a horror-style score by Ariel Marx. Despite having no body count aside from the already deceased, the film is a not-too-distant cousin to contemporary "art horror" films by the likes of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers.

Sennott infuses Danielle with likability that seems as though it may not have been present on the page. She perfectly portrays the young woman's claustrophobic, barely concealed terror as it escalates during the shiva. Agron is given by far the greatest opportunity to shine thus far in her career. Though the role of Kim is a small one, she brings complexity to the character, who both the film and Agron avoid painting in a villainous light. The largest impression comes from Gordon, whose work as Maya is revelatory. She is justifiably bitter towards Danielle due to their history, yet she displays warmth and understanding. It's the type of performance that heralds the arrival of a significant new talent.

As insightful as it is witty, Shiva Baby is one of the most "zoomer" films yet made, with very contemporary values regarding sexuality and relationships. In a sense, Danielle is a stand-in for the anxiety that young people feel in certain interactions with older generations. She is a modern woman, and the film refreshingly refrains from judging her even when she is clearly in the wrong. The character's unambiguous bisexuality feels like a milestone in queer cinema, an honest display of the most forgotten "letter" in the LGBTQ+ community. When the dust settles and Shiva Baby unleashes an epic burst of catharsis, it becomes clear just what Seligman has achieved with her first feature.

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