Review: You think your family and friends are a handful? Try sitting ‘Shiva Baby’

Two women walk down a street in "Shiva Baby"
Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in the movie “Shiva Baby.”

A shiva, the ritual gathering that follows a Jewish funeral, is potentially as good a cinematic device for uniting disparate — and dysfunctional — friends and family as the wedding, birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas events that have driven countless movie comedies.

Unfortunately, writer-director Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby,” despite its thematic acuity, loopy vitality and committed acting, doesn’t add up to enough in its too-brief 72 minutes (plus end credits) to warrant all the cross-wired mayhem that gets us over the movie’s dubious finish line.

Based on Seligman’s 2018 eight-minute short, the film finds floundering college senior — and secret sex worker — Danielle (Rachel Sennott) unexpectedly running into her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), at a shiva being held in the New York City-area home (shot in Queens) of her aunt Sheila (Cilda Shaur). It’s awkward with a capital A, especially since the thirtyish Max is there with his blonde shiksa wife (Dianna Agron, Jewish in real life) and their whiny baby, neither of whom Danielle had any idea existed.

Chaos ensues, not only because of Danielle and Max’s fear of exposure but the intrusive presence of Danielle’s hectoring, boundaries-free mom (a game Polly Draper), befuddled dad (Fred Melamed) and cheppering, at times gargoylish relatives. Also there: Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, the law-school-bound Maya (Molly Gordon), with whom she plays an anxious game of approach-avoidance.


The film, which visually often evokes “The Graduate’s” claustrophobic, what’s-it-all-about ennui (last shot included), unfolds like a torturous, bagels-and-lox-strewn obstacle course, one that Danielle must somehow survive — dignity, privacy and independence intact. Good luck with that.

Seligman leans too heavily on the Jewish tropes here, only partly mitigating what some may find offensive via her characters’ well-meaning, if suffocating, concern and the film’s amusing dollops of nervous energy.

Meanwhile, Ariel Marx’s menacing, strings-centric score amps up Danielle’s off-the-charts angst and proves equal parts funny and overbearing.

Sure, there’s authenticity at work — who hasn’t known or at least met some of the broad-stroked folks seen here? But a shrewder, more measured approach might have made the film more accessible and engaging. As is, it largely plays like one of those semi-hip farces from the late 1960s or early ’70s — only with minivans and sexting.

'Shiva Baby'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes

Playing: Starts April 2, Laemmle Virtual Cinema