The concept of a thriller/horror which plays out almost entirely over the course of a family gathering has been relatively under-utilised in recent years. There is great potential for creating a string of heart-racing moments borne out of genuine psychological concerns. Leave it to Emma Seligman, in her feature directorial debut, to craft an effort which delivers upon that potential; a swiftly-paced, wonderfully performed, and consistently tense piece of work which deftly balances sharp humour with a profound depiction of the stress of having to maintain a façade in front of family relatives, knowing deep down that one is not content with the direction their life is heading in.
Led by the magnificent Rachel Sennott, Shiva Baby revolves around a student at Columbia University named Danielle who is struggling to pay her college fees, relying on hook-ups with Max (Danny Deferrai), an older, married man. She attends a shiva with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) as they are joined by fellow members of the local Jewish community, and it becomes clear that the three of them are apprehensive about Danielle fielding questions from other guests about her career given how messy it is. Unexpected and awkward encounters ensue, and ultimately Danielle is forced to confront significant problems in circumstances which are far from ideal.
Many of the most striking first-time features over the past decade have been horror films, from Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2016) to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), as the genre facilitates the ability of artists to establish a style of their own as well as tackle specific issues in a manner that is appealing to mainstream audiences. While it could not necessarily be labelled a traditional horror film, Shiva Baby boasts similar qualities, with Seligman finding her voice as a director but doing so in a project that should be broadly accessible. She does not rely on jarring sound effects or shocking plot twists to drive the suspense; it is the snappy dialogue and uncomfortable dynamics between characters which fashion so much suspense, complemented by Ariel Marx’s disquieting score. The setting – a shiva in Danielle’s aunt’s house – exacerbates the tension, as the claustrophobic feelings which unsettle the protagonist have a similar effect on viewers. She occasionally has to resort to retreating to the bathroom or standing outside the house to avoid conversing with certain guests. The confined space also influences particular camera choices, as a multitude of close-ups are used to emphasise the discomfort on characters’ faces as well as demonstrate how gazes between individuals can be interpreted in numerous ways, subsequently shaping new story developments.
The main reason, however, that the suspense Shiva Baby never dissipates is due to how emotionally resonant its central conceit is. Many viewers will be able to sympathise with Danielle because her anxiety of this specific gathering is borne out of conditions that we can identify with. Feeling dissatisfied with your current career path and having to pretend to be completely certain of your choices and future prospects is incredibly daunting. It is insincere and conjures up the possibility of being subjected to public humiliation if you are caught lying. Seligman, also the film’s writer, crucially varies the responses of the guests to Danielle’s fabricated life stories, ranging from scepticism to ignorance, which makes every conversation the lead exchanges all the more compelling. The director draws upon the fear of one’s bluff being called, but does so at the right moments, allowing comments made by Danielle earlier in the narrative, such as those related to her “babysitting job”, to serve as the basis for both humour and drama during the climax. Seligman’s script offers earnest reflections of how agitated young people can be by social events, but much of the heavy lifting is done by Sennott who displays a knack for quick wit and cutting comedic delivery all the while conveying the unease of the situation with great efficacy. The chemistry she shares with Molly Gordon, who plays her ex, Maya, is also a highlight.
Overall, Shiva Baby is one of the year’s stand-out films so far. A feature running for only 77 minutes might seem destined to short-change its viewers, but Seligman resists dragging out events superfluously, and ensures that the tension never lets up. A fine tonal juxtaposition, a breakout turn for Rachel Sennott, and an enthralling unveiling of Seligman’s writing and directorial talents, it will be difficult to find a movie that is as simultaneously stressful and thrilling as this one in 2021.