Shiva Baby (2021)
Written & Directed by Emma Seligman
As I get older, my personal definition of what makes a horror film both expands and retracts. The funhouse jumpscare-a-thons that have been accepted as what horror is in major theatrical releases misses the whole point of the genre for me. I think Ari Aster’s pictures are as close to popular horror that I enjoy. I think what’s missing from most of these movies is the building of atmosphere. There are tense strings on the soundtrack, and then a loud burst with something that might be related to the horror or not popping onto the screen. Shiva Baby feels like a personal horror movie to me, the story of a person whose decisions in life have caught up to her and play out almost in real-time. It has those same strings playing on the soundtrack, but they rarely give us the climax we’re expecting and just keep needling at the sanity of our protagonist. It’s one of the tensest movie-watching experiences I’ve had in 2021 so far.
Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is on the verge of graduating from college with a degree in gender studies, apparently without a real focus or direction on how she will use that when she enters the job market. She has found Max, a sugar daddy, who she meets in the city. After getting some money, she has to rush off to attend the shiva of a family friend. Danielle meets her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), at the shiva, where she keeps up her lie that she is working as a babysitter. Things get complicated when Danielle’s old childhood friend/teenage experimenting partner Maya (Molly Gordon) is there. Danielle tries to avoid Maya, but things get even more twisted when Max arrives, revealed to be a former employee of her father. And Max has his wife and newborn child with him.
In her directorial debut, Emma Seligman has mastered how to just build & ratchet tension to a series of climaxes, only to then start tightening the screws again. If you don’t like comedies centered around awkward social interactions, you should avoid this movie because there are moments it physically hurts to watch Danielle dig her hole deeper. Personally, I love this type of comedy and sort of taking a sick thrill in that queasy feeling you get by empathizing with Danielle’s plight. She’s manufactured this situation that seemed safe and compartmentalized but now is crumbling before her eyes. If the plot had just been the tension between her and Max, it would have been good, but adding Maya in as another former lover creates an even better dynamic.
A heap of praise should be given to Rachel Sennott for her performance as Danielle. She can convey so much wordlessly, reacting to moments, revealing simmering stress underneath the surface. It makes her moments of outburst, whether they are in solitude or in front of another person, all the more cathartic. There is a rhythm to the plot and interactions that reminds me of really tightly constructed horror films or something like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. The film has movements that build and then break to allow the audience and Danielle a moment to breathe. There is even a long game played with Danielle’s cell phone that goes missing early on and returns right as the second act concludes. It is, in my opinion, the most intense of all the moments.
On the other side of the camera, you have artists like cinematographer Maria Rusche and editor Hanna A. Park, who help craft a film that just keeps us nerve-wracked. There are some great close-ups of Danielle to help emphasize the actress’s performance and also the claustrophobia of the setting. She’s in someone else’s house, she doesn’t know the deceased all that well, she’s around people who are interrogating her about her life. It’s clear a lot of time and planning was spent on staging and blocking in the house. Where Danielle is in relation to other characters causes the tension to ease or increase. She has brief moments of escape or asides between her and one other character to further explore that relationship.
Shiva Baby is a bold and impressive debut that signals a solid comedic talent in both the writer/director and her lead performer. Emma Seligman delivers a gloriously cringe-inducing story, a car accident we cannot look away from. She knows how to balance the horror of the situation with genuine pathos. Comedy works best when it’s tightly written and structured but has the feeling of something wild and unpredictable. Seligman nails every aspect of that in Shiva Baby.