It’s a well-known rule of comedy that insiders can make fun of the people and places they love, but no one else can. In other words, I can make fun of my family—but you most definitely can’t. Baltimoreans can make fun of Baltimore. People from outside of this town? Mock our city at your own risk. (No, really. I wouldn’t recommend it.)
Which brings me to Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. It’s about a recent college graduate named Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who attends a shiva from hell. (A shiva is a seven-day mourning period after a Jewish funeral—but there’s generally a bigger reception right after the funeral, which is what the film is focusing on here.) The film is played as a horror/comedy—or, more precisely, the comedy derives from the hellishness of the event. Seligman, who is Jewish, wallows in Jewish stereotypes here—ineffectual men; pushy yentas fussing over Danielle, inquiring about her weight, asking invasive personal questions, gossiping, hovering, never shutting up—some of which, of course, are accurate. (There is often, if not always, a grain of truth in a stereotype.) There’s a goodly dose of affection thrown into the mix, too, if you’re attuned to it, but sometimes I wish Seligman hadn’t leaned so far into the stereotypes. At one point in the film, Danielle becomes acutely aware of people eating—and we get a closeup of faces shoving bagels and lox and rugelach into their mouths, chewing and licking and smacking their lips with gusto. It felt, perhaps, a bridge too far. (But funny, too!)
Hovering relatives and family friends aren’t the only reason Danielle is in hell. When we first meet her, we see that she has some sort of “sugar-daddy” type relationship with Max (Danny Deferrari), a man who pays her for sex. They seem to have a pretty good thing going—while the relationship is transactional, it’s also affectionate and stable. Danielle likes him.
So when she gets to the shiva—guilted into it by her mother (Polly Draper) and father (Fred Melamed)—she is rather shocked to see Max there. (He’s a family friend of the deceased.) What’s more, he has a shiksa goddess wife (Dianna Agron, who in a bit of an inside joke, is Jewish in real life) and a tetchy blonde baby who never stops crying (the literal “shiva baby” of the title—although, of course, the real shiva baby is the not-quite-as-adult-as-she-thinks Danielle).
Then, to make matters worse, Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) is at the party as well—and her life seems to be going better than Danielle’s. While Danielle is still finding herself, lying about being a nanny and pretending to go on job interviews (while actually making money through her sugar daddy arrangement), Maya is heading off to law school—and, frankly, seems a bit smug about it.
So yeah, a lot is happening. Seligman often keeps the camera trained on Sennott’s expressive face—as Danielle registers all manner of horror, disgust, and mortification. The soundtrack, ominous plucked strings that eventually get more insistent, intentionally mirrors that of a horror film. Every time Danielle tries to retreat—outside for a breather or into the bathroom, she’s cornered, by her mother, by Max’s increasingly suspicious wife, by Maya, or by any number of prying old ladies, who are particularly concerned with her weight. (“How much do you weigh?”; “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps.”)
But here’s the thing. Not all is bad. There’s lots of love in that room, too. Danielle’s father is a sweetheart, who can’t resist cooing over the baby and wants to make sure everyone has a ride home. Her mother, while aggressively attentive, is also doting and encouraging. When Danielle gets coffee spilled all over her, her mother tends to her, lovingly (using the water provided for ritualistic cleansing at the entranceway—a religious taboo, but the bathroom is too crowded, she explains). When Danielle expresses her fear that she’s a disappointment, her mother quickly shuts that notion down. Mom even tolerates—if not quite accepts (she thinks it’s a phase)—Danielle’s bisexuality. What she is, in fact, is a good mother. (Show me a good mother, and I’ll show you an occasionally annoying one.) And, Draper, it should be noted, is wonderful in this part—vain, attractive, pushy, fiercely protective. I know that woman.
As I watched this film, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if only Jewish people could see it?” Our laughter would be familiar and affectionate, and knowing—there’d be no room for bad faith viewings. But an artist isn’t responsible for bad faith interpretations of their work, even if they will happen. Shiva Baby is an extremely exaggerated version of a certain reality, which is precisely why it’s so damn funny. And as my late great Nana Lillian used to say, “F ’em, if they can’t take a joke.”
Shiva Baby is now streaming on multiple platforms.