A sex worker sits shiva in 2020 comedy Shiva Baby, or to use its gentile title, Newborn at the Jew Mourn.
Largely set in one location over 75 minutes in close to real-time, Shiva Baby passes in a blitz of schvitz and blintzes, packing enough stress into one afternoon to last the full mourning period. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) misses the funeral because she’s shtupping a client but turns up at the shiva (without knowing whose it is) in time to “reap the benefits of the buffet”, only to be greeted by a chorus of kibitzers, interrogating her love life, career plans and eating habits with all the tact of a taser. “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps!” worries her mum (Polly Draper).
Though the situation is hyper-specific, the anxious humour arises from the universality of Danielle’s experience, so anyone who has been forced to spend time with extended family will get the chills if not the shivas. Emma Seligman’s claustrophobic direction keeps us crammed inside Danielle’s head, and clever sound design mixes Ariel Marx’s nervous strings with barbed comments bleeding in from the edges of the room. These elements conspire to create a sense of psychological horror, a feeling akin to watching Darren Aronofsky’s Jewish Mother!
It succeeds where Roman Polanski’s single-room, real-time chamber piece Carnage failed, by balancing the comedy with compassion, non-judgemental in its view of sex work and bisexuality. Like the Jewish lesbian drama Disobedience (AKA Fiddle Her on the Roof), the film explores the tension between cultural expectation and sexual liberation, albeit in a considerably more progressive environment. Seligman’s script is at once uncomfortably realistic and unnaturally hilarious, brilliantly performed by Sennott (the standout in Bodies Bodies Bodies) and Draper, neither of whom are Jewish, unlike Dianna Agron who plays the only non-Jewish character.
Shiva Baby is short and sweaty, bouncing between belly laughs and moments that sting like open wounds. When Danielle’s dad (Fred Melamed) tells the room, “She had kind of an extended awkward phase,” the proof is in the kugel.