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Shiva Baby Review: The Most Anxiety-Inducing Comedy In Years

A year of quarantine may have left us all craving our next social interactions, but after watching Shiva Baby, many viewers may find themselves eager to cancel all their plans and avoid crowds all over again. Emma Seligman's directorial debut walks a fine line between cringe comedy and anxiety-inducing character study, as indebted to the early paranoid horrors of director Roman Polanski as it is the offbeat Brooklynite comedies of Noah Baumbach. Shot back in the before times of 2019 before becoming one of the first to premiere at a newly virtual festival (in this case, the 2020 edition of SXSW), the way Shiva Baby creates discomfort at the very idea of being in a confined space with a large group has helped to give it an unintentional timeliness. This might explain why I was constantly on the verge of a full-scale mental breakdown at what would, in any other director's hands, be a more sardonic take on the classic comedy of errors.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) arrives late to attend a shiva at her aunt's house, having missed the funeral right before due to hooking up with her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari). Things are awkward at first, but become even more toe-curling when Max shows up, turning out to be a former colleague of Danielle's dad Joel (A Serious Man's Fred Melamed). From this discussion, Max quickly finds out that she doesn't have plans to open a business, but is instead a gender studies graduate, passing off the career path of her childhood friend/on-off partner Maya (Molly Gordon) as her own to seem impressive. As Max twists the knife in further, while Danielle's parents remain oblivious to their current arrangement, Joel lets slip something Danielle had no idea about — that not only does Max have a wife that he's cheating on, he recently became a father for the first time.

When Max's wife Kim (former Glee star Dianna Agron) shows up, things slowly take a turn for the worse, with Danielle's paranoia unravelling as she fears her secrets will get revealed. Ill-fated attempts to hook up with both Max and Maya give way to awkward consequences, while her constant reminders that her career is going nowhere leave her feeling cornered and infantilized. The film mostly plays out in real time, but despite a brief 77-minute duration, the second-hand anxiety will likely leave you feeling you've been trapped there with Danielle for weeks.

Closer to a paranoid thriller than a dark comedy

The film is an expansion of Emma Seligman's 2018 short of the same name (currently available to watch for free on Vimeo), which is a fascinating curio, but less than satisfying after seeing what she made next. Produced as a film school thesis project, it doesn't feel like the germ of an idea so much as the film's premise diluted down to its awkward core — being confronted by your secret sugar daddy at a family gathering, your web of lies being torn down as two worlds collide. Prior to that premiering at the 2018 edition of SXSW, Seligman had already started pre-production on this feature-length adaptation, and its evolution from that original idea is nothing short of remarkable. Seligman has spoken about how her primary influences were Gia Coppola's 2013 film Palo Alto and Jewish romantic comedies, but it's actually one of her stated secondary influences whose influence looms largest over the finished product: the work of legendary filmmaker John Cassavetes, in particular his collaborations with Gena Rowlands.

His 1970s run of initially dismissed and now widely revered films such as A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night feel like touchstones for how Seligman captures the increased paranoia and disconnect of her protagonist. The way the former film depicts its central character's continued discomfort at being amongst crowds, making for an anxious experience without overly relying on hallucinatory imagery, seems to have been loosely lifted from here, albeit with a touch of Roman Polanski's "apartment trilogy" sprinkled in for good measure. As Danielle becomes more and more unnerved by Max's family life, and has to briefly look after his baby under the judging glares of other shiva attendees (presented in unsettling extreme close-up), the ominous way in which she appears to be treated feels like a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the final act of Rosemary's Baby. You couldn't describe Shiva Baby as horror — but Seligman's stylistic influences couldn't be further from the comedies and grounded character dramas which influence her writing. The two contrasting tones work together better than they have any right to, and makes it so describing Shiva Baby as a mere "dark comedy" undersells what the director has managed to accomplish.

The films of director Alex Ross Perry feel like the closest comparison to what Seligman is striving for here. His two most recent collaborations with Elisabeth Moss, Queen of Earth and Her Smell, are similarly paranoid character studies that wear their influences firmly on their sleeves. But whereas a film like Queen of Earth buckles under the weight of its big Polanski influence, successfully aping the style of his early work but offering nothing of substance to make it more than just a keenly realized tribute, Shiva Baby is more effective at outlining its director's distinctive voice. At a stretch, you could even say the way she marries her distinctive comedic sensibilities with stylistic tics associated with '70s social thrillers isn't a million miles away from Jordan Peele's approach to horror filmmaking. A film like Trey Edward Shultz' debut Krisha, another acclaimed SXSW premiere a few years prior, would also make for an interesting double bill — another awkward family gathering built around a paranoid protagonist, punctuated by a chilling score that feels lifted from another genre altogether.

A cutting social critique

The comparisons to filmmakers such as Alex Ross Perry and Noah Baumbach may give you pause for thought. After all, both have repeatedly been criticized for making what many would call a "first world problems" brand of cinema, following wealthy, white, Brooklyn-based protagonists with daily dilemmas a world removed from those of the average viewer. Although it would be unfair to say those filmmakers constantly overlook the privileges of their characters, they very rarely dissect it with the depth and dark-hearted wit with which Seligman does here.

Mercifully, this isn't via a criticism of Danielle's decision to earn a living through a sugar baby app while between jobs. Instead, this is explored via dismantling the illusion Max presented to her about his success, with the eventual revelation that his various indulgences (from his bachelor pad where he brings Danielle, to his fondness for dining at the city's most expensive restaurants) are funded by his much more stable wife. It's a revelation that fundamentally alters the power dynamics in the drama — and one which gives way to a much more cutting critique of the masculine desire to appear to be of higher status. Both Max and Danielle have built webs of lies around them, but only one of them is doing it out of financial necessity.

Shiva Baby is an arresting directorial debut from Emma Seligman. For those expecting nothing more than a dark comedy, you may need to mentally prepare yourself for just how much this will put you through the wringer.