Shiva Baby is very much the product of a wry school of emerging filmmakers who understand excruciatingly mundane horror and pin-sharp comedy as intimate bedfellows. Seligman’s writing finds a way to flesh out gloriously caricatural Jewish relatives, probing and overbearing and irrational. She does this both through dialogue and a visceral, haptic aesthetic that lurches in and out of focus visually, and has a nails-on-chalkboard unease sonically.
Coming in hot with a 4.01 average rating, Shiva Baby is striking all sorts of discordant notes with film lovers. “Combines some of my biggest anxieties: being asked if I have a boyfriend as well as what my plans for the future are and people talking with their mouths full,” writes Muriel.
The film’s “bisexual chaos”, which hinges on a haywire performance from Rachel Sennott as Danielle, opposite Molly Gordon’s overachieving ex-girlfriend, Maya, is also one of its great strengths. Glee star Dianna Agron is the shiksa threat, Kim, while Danny Deferrari is Danielle’s hapless benefactor, Max. If that’s not enough? Polly Draper, Fred Melamed and Jackie Hoffman are also just there.
What do you think defines a Jewish sense of humor?
Emma Seligman: It’s morbid usually, and darker—generally uncomfortable and cringeworthy. I think about Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, and A Serious Man. It borders on, “Is this funny at all?” I think Jewish humor leans into the darkly funny British sense of humor. I’m Canadian, so I feel like I’m halfway between the UK and the US in terms of their sense of humor.
Was it always your intention to make a comedy that feels like a bit of a nightmare? You’ve mentioned Black Swan and Opening Night as touchstones…
Because I came from a short film, the question when expanding into a feature was, “How are we going to keep everyone interested in this day?” It’s got to be a significant day, it’s got to be that this young woman’s life has completely changed from this day. So what is it that changes? Why are we watching it? I watched a lot of movies that took place in one day, one of them was Trey Edward Shults’ first film Krisha. And then from there I realized that anxiety and this scary psychological feeling is a great way to have the audience stay there.