The sexually-charged comedy Shiva Baby is an awkward delight.
Dani (Rachel Sennott) is a 20-something sugar baby, part of a close-knit Jewish community. Her highly opinionated mother Debbie (Polly Draper) loves her dearly, but is controlling and smothering. Debbie invites Dani to attend the Shiva Minyan (memorial service) for a member of the community who has passed away. Dani goes, but she really doesn’t know who the Shiva Minyan is for. As soon as Dani arrives, she spots a childhood friend, Maya (Molly Gordon), who she’s desperate to avoid. It soon becomes clear that something went down with Molly.
Meanwhile, Dani does a double take when she spots Max (Danny Defferari), a “client”. He is equally taken by surprise. Both appear to genuinely like one another, but things are about to get decidedly more uncomfortable. Dani discovers Max is married to a beautiful entrepreneur, Kim (Dianna Agron), and the pair have an 18-month-old daughter. The history of Dani’s relationship with Maya is also revealed as the cattiness between that pair continues.
Shiva Baby becomes an hilarious free-for-all with a crackerjack final act. The movie works magnificently with Jewish cliches – think food, weight, career and relationships. Characterisations are deliberately inflated, but relatable and mostly plausible; although I felt the exaggeration went too far in a few instances. Writer and director Emma Seligman has done a fine job capturing the claustrophobic nature of Dani’s increasingly harried mind. The confined set (a home) adds to the claustrophobia.
The camera often focuses on Dani’s body language, actions and interactions with lightning impact. The stringed score by composer Ariel Marx adds to the tension. Much credit goes to actors Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordon for the work they’ve put into crafting their characters. Sennott brilliantly captures the embarrassment and fear involved in the predicament Dani – who hasn’t determined what she will make of her life – finds herself in. Gordon appears to effortlessly turn up the heat at will. There is also much in the “looks” between Sennott and Danny Deferrari.
Shiva Baby is designed to put a smile on your face and it succeeds. If this isn’t the most uncomfortable memorial service you’ve ever seen, your life is a whole lot more “out there” than mine.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.