For many people, your early twenties are at once a hopeful and anxiety-ridden stage of your life. Particularly if you are a college student or graduate, there can be either a sense of endless possibilities or disillusionment when your big plans don’t come to fruition. That latter state of mind is primarily what Danielle (Rachel Sennott) experiences, as the distressed protagonist in Emma Seligman’s devilishly funny comedy Shiva Baby.
Indeed, Danielle is a recognizably lost soul. As she struggles to complete a college degree – a combination of media and gender studies – with uncertain job prospects, her outlook is increasingly pessimistic. In the meantime, she gets by through babysitting gigs, the support of her parents and the generosity of her financially stable male lover Max. But this comfortable facade is torn down when her parents drag her to a traditional shiva gathering to mourn a deceased relative. Feeling the weight of expectations from her prying Jewish family and their friends, the situation is compounded by the unexpected arrival of her ex-girlfriend and Max. To make matters worse, he arrives with an undisclosed wife and child in tow.
Seligman milks the subsequent awkwardness for all its worth throughout Danielle’s claustrophobic ordeal. Viewers with overly involved relatives will surely be triggered by the unsolicited comments about her weight and endless questioning about her education and career. And things get worse when she gets called out for the illusion of law school success she created for Max.
As this tense situation threatens to reveal all of Danielle’s secrets, horror movie-worthy sound effects accentuate the nightmarish atmosphere. The humiliation is written all over Sennott’s face, who carries the film with her deeply felt performance. While much of the comedy is at her character’s expense, her own comic timing also shines through in empty condolences, stress eating and drinking and sarcastic barbs directed towards her ex-girlfriend (played by Molly Gordon).
Indeed, Seligman’s sharp screenplay entertains audiences with a droll sense of humor amid the central premise’s second hand embarrassment. And the writing reveals deeper layers through a moving mother-daughter relationship that gradually exposes Danielle’s insecurities. Polly Draper is perfect as Danielle’s perceptive mother, who is equal parts overbearing and comforting.
Ultimately, viewers may find themselves losing sympathy for Danielle however. As she exacerbates her problems with a few questionable actions, she begins to test your patience. And yet, you can’t quite turn your eyes away from her misfortunes. Her flaws make her, and by the extension the film, all the more relatable.