Who the F*ck Brings a Baby to Shiva?
This contained dramedy is the feature debut for writer/director Emma Seligman. The basic premise is a college woman unsure of her future attends a funeral reception and is caught between her ex, her current sugar daddy, and invasive, nosy, judgmental family members who constantly bombard her with drama and questions about her nebulous future. It's a wild, hilarious, dramatic, and awkward ride that almost all takes place in one house. The slim but efficient 75 minute runtime does everything entertaining and substantive to justify its short but utterly enjoyable existence. Let's take a closer look at why this film works on so many levels.
This dialogue-driven, joke-heavy screenplay does much of the heavy lifting - such is the nature of the premise. And this does not serve as a criticism - quite the contrary. The film largely takes place in one house where the funeral reception occurs, as does much of the hilarious antics and cringe-worthy uncomfortable moments. The screenplay is very dry and sardonic - which might turn off certain viewers to it. But, the screenplay is incredibly smart and calculated in the way it frames scenes, uses subtextual glances and nonverbals amid the overlapping conversations and the dialogue that carries us from scene to scene. Although, it's hard to call these scenes as they're more often sequences as it all seems to happen in real time. The conversations which interrupt our lead character Danielle's flow can be all too relatable for those who have tossed aside "normal" paths of life in favor of artistic/creative pursuits - and have been the punchline to one too many judgmental accusations. We experience Dani's pain and strife throughout the course of this tumultuous family gathering, and our hearts can only go out to her. Luckily, her clever and witty sarcastic quips keep us entertained, even in her times of strife.
The Ensemble Cast
Not only are the lines on the page important, but it's also the delivery of the lines by talented actors that can be equally important. The ensemble cast does a stellar job of elevating the material from the page and bringing it to life on-screen. The material is largely Jewish humor and New York humor, so it may be lost on some. But, they do make most of it legible for audiences who are on the outside of this subculture looking in. The actors all do a terrific job with the moments that require subtext with a deft hand and have impeccable comedic timing - which is of the utmost importance in this genre. Rachel Sennot is fantastic as the lead, Danielle with her dramatic and comedic acting hybrid talents. She has several moments in which she shows her range and proves she can carry a film like this. As I mentioned, it's not just the lead, but the ensemble cast that really makes this work so well. Other notables include Molly Gordon as her ex-girlfriend, Maya, Danny Deferari as her sugar daddy, and Dianna Agron as (plot-twist) the sugar daddy's wife and mother of his child (the baby at the Shiva). All of the other supporting members of the cast do a wonderful job of fulfilling their roles as the pesky, intrusive, and overbearing family members who contribute to the anxiety and hardships of our protagonist throughout.
The filmmaking also contributes to the overall experience of the film. Shiva Baby is not just funny and dramatic, it's also anxiety-inducing with the way the film is crafted. The visceral cinematography, the editing choices, sound design, and off-kilter score all make for a bit of a nerve-wracking experience which puts us in the anxious shoes of our protagonist during her palpable struggles. There are times which we can feel her anxiety creeping up and the way the film is framed really contributes to that profound feeling. I have heard some people describe this film as "Uncut Gems for women who think law school is a personality trait." Not only that, but also for Jewish NYU students. It does make total sense when you watch the film. I won't say it's Safdie brothers level of anxiety inducing cinema, but I see their point and it's a somewhat apt comparison. The film also does a terrific job of giving us the feel of being stuck at this family outing through the use of tracking shots, master shots, deep focus, and panning. Another way this was so effective is that the house was utilized very well, not staying in one room, using the outside, different private and public rooms, all to avoid the plot from becoming stale.
All in all, Shiva Baby works on several levels as a dramatic comedy, thanks to the contained nature of the film, the smart and clever script, the realistic acting, and the wholly effective filmmaking. Emma Seligman shows great promise as a writer/director and she will be a name to watch out for in the future. Rachel Sannot showcases her strengths as a leading woman and is bolstered by a stellar supporting ensemble cast. The filmmaking surrounding Shiva Baby contributes to the hilarious, dramatic, and stressful cinematic experience. This is a film that may not resonate for some, but I highly recommend it for those who have dry, sardonic, and sarcastic senses of humor.
Shiva Baby is currently enjoying a very limited theatrical release where cinemas are currently safely open and is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Movies, and Apple TV+.