Writer-director Emma Seligman’s feature debut is a one-location wonder of emotional claustrophobia that is beautifully suited to the narrative economy she deploys. My God. Spun out of her own short film of the same name, Shiva Baby is the painfully poignant, dryly funny tale of Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a directionless college student attending a New York City shiva — a sort of Jewish funeral wake — at the behest of her parents (Polly Draper [Jane Wants a Boyfriend, Obvious Child] and Fred Melamed [Passengers, Hail, Caesar!]), though she’s not even sure who is the deceased is. Did I say this was a one-location film? Actually, it’s two: the film opens with Danielle having noisy sex, at his apartment, with her older sugar-daddy lover, Max (Danny Deferrari)… who shows up at the shiva, too. Turns out he knows her father. Awkwardness all around!
There’s a delicious horror-movie vibe to Danielle’s nonstop cringe here as she attempts to navigate that deeply awful moment of young adulthood when your parents — and all their friends and peers — are still treating you like a child even though you’re grown up (or are you?), and as you suddenly become aware of the secret hypocrisy of the overt “traditional,” “conservative” values you were raised in as they clash with the realities of adult life. What if the things you thought you were being so transgressive about, so rebellious in acting out, were just ordinary messy adulthood after all? What if there was generational solidarity to be found, maybe, once you recognize the common ground you have with your own peers, as Danielle might have with Maya (Molly Gordon: Good Boys, Booksmart), her former high-school girlfriend, who is on a much more approved path in life, if they can get past the expectations of their parents that are hanging over them?
Sennott is delightfully caustic, a cover for Danielle’s aching vulnerability, as she tries to cope with helicopter parenting to the Nth degree and a culture in which everyone is up in everybody’s business… or at least, they think they are. Powerful specificity here is also a powerful universality: I’m not Jewish, but I feel a lot of resonance with my own Irish-American New York City extended family here. And we all have to get over the speed bumps of late adolescence. Maybe you’ve never been to a shiva, but you’ve probably been here.