“What’s my soundbite?” Danielle (Rachel Sennott) asks her parents Gloria (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), a bit of armor as she heads into battle in “Shiva Baby,” attending the wake of a family friend as if it might be her own last stand. She is loathe to ask them anything, already resentful of having to rely on them financially when she still hasn’t found her calling, flirting with things she thinks she should be doing like acting or taking gender studies courses, but they’re happy to oblige, as they are in the other aspects of her life, primarily out of love but partially if it’ll spare their reputation in the close-knit Jewish community. “You’re finishing up school and looking at offers,” Gloria tells her, one white lie of many that starts to add up in Emma Seligman’s magnificent feature debut.
At this point, you might think Danielle is already in law school, having said as much to Max (Danny Deferrari), a sugar daddy whose apartment she left to accompany her parents to the wake, yet that’s only what comes to mind for cover when she’s really thinking about Maya (Molly Gordon), her ex-girlfriend who will soon be heading off to study. Knowing Maya will be sitting shiva for the Feldmans is what Danielle is bracing for when she walks in the front door, besides all the nosy relatives wondering about where she is in life, but she is truly horrified to discover that Max is somehow connected to the deceased as well, bringing along his wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their 18-month-old baby, making it understandable when she leaps at the opportunity to clean up vomit in another room.
Seligman envisions Danielle in her white blouse that becomes increasingly soiled throughout the day being sent out to sea of mourners all in black, inundated with one tidal wave of invasive questions after another. If you wondered what Ariel Marx, the string virtuoso behind the score to “The Tale,” might do if she had gotten the composing gig for “Jaws,” the answer is as delightful as you’d expect as Danielle is cornered left and right by well-meaning friends and family. The film’s script is an architectural marvel when the lies and equivocations that Danielle and others make on her behalf start to wear thin, but equally impressive is how cinematographer Maria Rusche works the room, never losing the claustrophobic feel of a family get-together while finding inventive angles to show the dynamics at play when conversations from across the house can make their way into Danielle’s ear. (Special credit should be given to the sound design team and Seligman’s use to ADR to plant some of the film’s funniest lines in the ever-present cacophony.)
Clocking in at a brisk 77 minutes, “Shiva Baby” knows exactly when to stop its many spinning plates and has a grace that so often eludes its heroine, due in no small part to Sennott’s nuanced performance, one of many in the film to defy obvious choices when it comes to inhabiting a certain character type that could so easily fall into a cliche, as well as Seligman’s elegant insertion of exposition that never takes one out of the experience of the film. “Shiva Baby” may be catching Danielle on one of her worst days, but it shows so many others at their best.
“Shiva Baby” will screen at the Deauville Film Fest on September 11th at 2 pm at C.I.D., September 12th at 6:30 pm at Casino, September 13th at 2 pm at Morny and at the Toronto Film Festival online on September 10th at 6 pm and physically at September 17th at noon at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.