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Shiva Baby ★★★★



Director: Emma Seligman

Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper

Released: 11th June 2021 (MUBI Online)

There’s a limit as to how taut a violin string can be wound before it will snap. An exercise in toe-curlingly awkward personal circumstance, the enforced niceties of an already emotionally fraught occasion and the overbearing weight of hearsay and familial pressure combine to make Shiva Baby a coming-of-age story of excruciating, yet delectable discomfort. Extending a 2018 short of the same name to create her feature debut, Emma Seligman’s film may revel in discord, but it is a finely tuned, well-pitched thumbing of the nose at expectations and reality, and the tale of a young woman’s struggle to find her way in the world at a key stage of her life as the walls close in.

Incisive yet playful throughout, the plucking of staccato notes and a vacillating, knife-edge wavering of strings, erratic and unpredictable, set the tone for all that the Canadian writer-director subjects us to thereafter. There’s none of the menace of violence or suspense in the thriller sense of the word, but there is something of the Safdie brothers’ films here in Seligman’s ability to have us squirming in seats from first to last. Much of this is thanks to a very fine lead performance; all expressive eyes, fierce restraint, frustration and fragility. Reaching a crescendo of sorts, the opening overtones blend with the sound of over-enthusiastic love-making as we meet Danielle (Rachell Sennott) and Max (Danny Deferrari), who, it will transpire, is her sugar-daddy, in passionate flagrante.  

It’s no spoiler to say that shortly thereafter they coincide, unexpectedly, at the titular Jewish mourning gathering where old friends and family are assembled after a funeral. Butting heads with her mother, Debbie (a phenomenal Polly Draper), a force of nature upon whom Seligman bestows such lines as, “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps,” it’s no wonder Danielle is on edge. Her mother may mean well, but her bedside manner leaves much to be desired. Ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is initially given the cold shoulder, but the air is thick with unspoken past liaisons and potentially devastating present revelations, especially when Max turns up with his wife and child. 

To say more would spoil the fun – if it may be called that – but Shiva Baby is a film of hushed asides, uneasy glances, subterfuge and straight-out deception that simmers, crackles and occasionally flares dangerously for its slim, 77-minute runtime. Seligman’s debut is a sprightly, tightly coiled Rubik’s Cube of tricks and moving pieces that threatens to blow open at any moment; it is to her credit that Jack stays in his box and she demonstrates a mature handle of tragi-comic tone, pacing and human interaction to prevent the film dropping into farce or melodrama. It’s the kind of cringe-worthy humour that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but in its performances and impressive script, it elicits as much sympathy and compassion as it does guilt-ridden, awkward laughs. We’ll definitely stay tuned for what Seligman does next.

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