Shiva Baby (M, 78mins) Directed by Emma Seligman ****
Fresh from the New Zealand International Film Festival, this is an edgy, laugh-out-loud comedy that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Death at a Funeral or Toni Erdmann.
A bittersweet, adult, pitch black farce that piles laugh after laugh as our heroine endures the Shiva from hell – at least for her.
Adapted and opened-out from writer-director Emma Seligman’s 2018 short film of the same name, Shiva Baby is the story of Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a feckless, directionless young Jewish woman whose carefully separated worlds collide at a service and wake (the Shiva of the title) for her Uncle’s second wife’s sister.
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If having to endure the company of her self-obsessed, disapproving mother Debbie (Polly Draper) isn’t bad enough, there’s also the presence of her law school-bound ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and, to Danielle’s shock, the man she has just rushed from sleeping with.
To her horror, Max (Danny Deferrari) is not only an old colleague of her father’s, but also married. Then, as she digests that news, comes the kicker: “Didn’t you guys have a baby last year,” a fellow Shiva-goer ask Max, a query that Maya responds to by nearly choking on a bagel.
Now starting to panic, the arrival of Max’s wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and baby daughter Rose at the commemoration is what sends Danielle spiralling out of control. In a blind panic, she accidentally rips her tights, hurts her leg, and while attempting to gather her composure in the bathroom, inexplicably decides the best course of action is to take a topless selfie and text it to Max.
What follows is a short, sweet and seriously funny escalation of events that feels like an extended episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, albeit with a very different protagonist.
Seligman does a masterful job of ensuring not an encounter or frame is wasted as Danielle’s past and present come back to haunt her in truly memorable fashion. Cleverly scored like a horror movie, there’s also a fabulous running gag involving Danielle’s inability to actually finish eating something without being interrupted, arguments over the correct pronunciation of arugula and “helpful” motherly observations like, “you look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps – and not in a good way”.
At the heart of the increasingly wild chaos is newcomer Sennott. She delivers a pitch perfect, breakout performance as the troubled Danielle, whose indignities also include having coffee spilt over her (“thank god Sheila’s coffee is always lukewarm, or you’d have third-degree burns,” her mother pithily observes) and her father discussing her previous relationship failures with the neighbours.
Shiva Baby provides a terrific calling card for both Sennott’s physical and verbal comedic skills, as well as Seligman’s talents behind the camera and overall in crafting this clever, compelling tale.
Shiva Baby is now available to rent from iTunes, YouTube and GooglePlay.