Melbourne 2020 Review: SHIVA BABY, a Self-serving Schmear of Awkwardness
Emma Seligman masterfully expands her award-winning short
This acerbic feature, adapted from the short of the same name expands on the original with further complications, but the aesthetic of this chamber-piece remains equally grounded and squeamishly uncomfortable over the course of a socially excruciating afternoon.
Uncomfortable in the best way of course, as the very selfish college grad Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is introduced climaxing at her sugar daddy Max’s (Danny Deferrari) studio apartment. She receives a call soon after from her mother urging her to come to a shiva (a sort of Jewish after-party for a funeral). The question of ‘who died’ is an afterthought for this narcissist, so self-absorbed that lying comes naturally.
Danielle leaves Max with a fake excuse, but lingers long enough to collect her stipend from him, savings for a law school that doesn’t exist in her future schemes. Max is awful also, and the measure of his deceit is apparent when he unexpectedly arrives at the shiva not long after. What follows is an intensely cringe-worthy sequence of weaselling to distant family, and friends of friends as Danielle reckons with the hole she has dug due to her choices and self-destructive nature.
Insecurity powers Shiva Baby, particularly its most ulcer-worthy cringe inducing moments. Danielle tries to fit in with the other Jewish folk, and represses her sex-positive attitude and progressive ideals that clash with the conservative traditionalism around her. Redefining status anxiety, she traverses begrudgingly around the crowded space, joining groups that passive-aggressively pick her apart as her responses are half-baked and generic.
Danielle looks to the other side of the room during these discussions, to the man that has lied to her, how dare he. Shiva Baby illustrates this hypocrisy as clever, tightly focused shots close in around her, to imprison and implicate further as the tone of light and direction shifts to sweaty psychological horror. Characters' heads frame the left and right of the screen with Danielle in the middle, either ignored or grilled for information that she falsely provides. The juxtaposition of body language to how she’s confidently projecting her deceit is conveyed in increasing desperation. Her finicky hand movements, side glances, long glares and nervous snacking are all indicators that she is out of control and out of her depth. Her sharply barbed comments are hilariously inappropriate given the context.
Despite all this Danielle is a character that you eventually become invested in, particularly when her childhood friend Maya (Molly gordon) becomes involved in the drama. She is initially seen as an antagonist, but when Maya gains some context into Danielle’s petulance and independence, so does the viewer. Danielle’s overbearing yet brilliant parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) provide the most Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque comedy of discomfort moments in the film, as the goofy father tries to shop Danielle into a job at every opportunity. He overly-explains that Danielle’s self-constructed gender studies degree makes it “sort of complex when it comes to finding employment”, and it is lines like this in every scene they are in together that is designed to visciously undermine Danielle’s lies. This is contrasted to the private whispered conversations her caring mother has with Danielle as she tries to understand why her daughter is upset. When they finally introduce her to family friend Max, you will want to literally hide from the screen.
The layered awkwardness and pressure-based mistakes in Shiva Baby lead Danielle from simmering snipiness to an ill conceived confrontation with Max, and others but details beyond this would be spoiler-territory.
Suffice to say, Danielle ironically receives her just-desserts due to her past behaviour, yet still has a chance of future redemption after she is shown some basic compassion amidst the mess of it all. Although still stuck in a predicament physically and emotionally, the film concludes on a subtle, cringey but hopeful note.
Shiva Baby is playing as part of the online-only Melbourne International Film Festival, running August 6-23 Australia-wide.