Dir: Emma Seligman. Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron. 15 cert, 78 mins
Could Rachel Sennott be to the bagel what Lauren Bacall was to the cigarette? I could be wrong, but I can’t recall having ever seen anyone load so much subtext into the consumption of smoked salmon and cream cheese. The 25-year-old American actress and comedian is the star of Emma Seligman’s uproariously uneasy farce, which unfolds in something close to real time at a shiva, or Jewish mourning ceremony, in a warren-like house somewhere in the New York suburbs.
Sennott’s Danielle is an aimless young graduate whose pursed lips and stern eyebrows make her face a permanent puff of discontentment. As the film begins, it would be a stretch to describe her as demolished by grief: in fact, when she and her family arrive, she’s not entirely sure who the deceased even was. “Wait! Mom! Who died?” she hisses at her mother, played by Polly Draper, as they walk up the path.
Nevertheless, on the “emotional turmoil” front, the event delivers. Instead of attending the funeral beforehand, Danielle goes to meet with a sugar-daddy, Danny Deferrari’s Max, for a financially-compensated tryst – and when she gets to the shiva, she is horrified to find her older client among the mourners. Danielle not only discovers that Max was a one-time employee of her father (a terrific, toe-curlingly avuncular Fred Melamed), but that he is also married, and his wife Kim, a glamorous and successful gentile (Dianna Agron, never sleeker) is there too, with their 18-month-old daughter.
As if this wasn’t sufficiently soul-crushing, Danielle also finds herself unexpectedly reunited with Maya (Molly Gordon), a high-achieving childhood friend with whom she once shared a same-sex dalliance that became a minor family scandal. Whenever the two exchange so much as a word, a concerned or disapproving glance unerringly seeks them out in the crowd, like a tiny homing missile. For Danielle, these strikes are just part of the overall gossipy siege, as her love-life, employment prospects and figure are pinched and prodded by a throng of older female relatives.
Sometimes she seeks refuge at the buffet, which is mountainously stocked with lox and schmear, rugelach, quivering bowls of egg salad, and other traditional foodstuffs. But should she actually eat any of it? Having slimmed down since her teens, Danielle’s weight loss is the subject of a number of approving comments, though according to her own mother, she looks “like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps – and not in a good way.”
Developed from an eight-minute short, Shiva Baby is the 26-year-old Seligman’s first feature, and falls into the same modern strain of Jewish breakneck-anxiety comedy as the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, and the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems. It lacks those films’ cosmically tragicomic scope: Danielle’s various mishaps and humiliations feel more like an assault course set for her by a screenwriter than the cruel whims of an incomprehensible universe.
But even so, Seligman’s command of the flow and swell of comic tension is thrillingly intuitive – she knows exactly when to let it well up, and when to pop it for maximum effect. Maria Rusche’s close-up camerawork flits cleverly between sober realism and Coen-esque caricature, while Ariel Marx’s score, all pizzicato tuts and clucks, sounds as if it’s being played on Danielle’s ever-tightening nerves.
Our heroine’s predicament is this: even though she’s well into her 20s, no-one in the family can bring themselves to treat her as an adult, largely because Danielle has yet to give them a good reason to do so. (She even tells her parents that her sugar-daddy money comes from babysitting: the archetypal teenage cash-in-hand gig.)
In what feels like a career-making performance, Sennott glories in her character’s messiness and flaws without excusing them, and the sympathy you feel for her is all the more ardent for being completely unsolicited. Much like the situation she finds herself in, Danielle is a total nightmare, and you wouldn’t want it any other way.
In cinemas now and on MUBI from tomorrow