From its title on down to the rugelach, “Shiva Baby” is an instant classic in the Jewish comedy of mortification, a genre that combines hilarity, anxiety, resentment and schmaltz. Even better, it’s a groundbreaker, one of the few to be written and directed by a woman, Emma Seligman, and to center on a woman character, played by the comedian/actress Rachel Sennott (who was raised Catholic, but never mind). At just 77 minutes and largely bound to one location, the film’s a slip of a thing, but it lacerates and celebrates its narrow turf with a microscopic eye for detail.
The first thing we see is a woman and a man having sex out of focus in the background while in the foreground, the woman’s cellphone rings and rings: Danielle’s mother, reminding her to be at a shiva, a Jewish wake, in the suburbs that afternoon. Danielle (Sennott) is out of college, directionless, and making spare cash as a call girl, and the man, Max (Danny Deferrari), is her regular sugar daddy. He thinks she’s working her way through law school. Her mother, Debbie (Polly Draper), thinks Danielle is working her way through a phase. Danielle isn’t working her way through anything. She’s stuck.
The shiva (“Wait, Mom — who died?”) is captured with a socio-cultural precision that’s just about surgical and that sees everything through the eyes of a 20-something woman stuck at a gathering with her parents’ noodgy friends, smiling and evading their questions. The arrival of two other guests turns up the heat under Danielle’s inner coffee urn. The first is Maya (Molly Gordon), who was Danielle’s high school girlfriend until their moms freaked out and who is going to law school. The second is sugar-daddy Max, with the shiksa wife (Dianna Agron) and toddler Danielle didn’t realize he had.
Seligman winds the film’s discomfort level to an intentionally high pitch, with the baby screaming and the camera acting like a party guest with no sense of personal space and Ariel Marx’s score pulling plucks and squawks out of an abused violin: dinner music for an ulcer. What keeps you watching is the way “Shiva Baby” puts us on Danielle’s side throughout, even as she’s sabotaging herself with further lies and lox. Everyone wants to know what she’s doing, what’s next, has she met a fella, and she has no idea who she even is. In some ways, this is a female version of “The Graduate,” where Mrs. Robinson has been replaced by an adulterous mensch and where law school is the new “plastics.”
Seligman has cast the film with a cruel and loving eye. The deathless Fred Melamed, seemingly on loan from a Coen brothers movie, plays Danielle’s father, affectionate and clueless, and the frame is crammed with faces familiar because you’ve seen them in other movies — the deadpan, gravel-voiced Jackie Hoffman, for instance — or at other funerals. Draper is magnificent as the kind of sharply dressed mother who would appraise her child and say, “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way.”
“Shiva Baby” was adapted from an eight-minute short Seligman made in 2018, but, unlike a lot of similar debut features, it rarely feels padded. There’s really not a lot to it in the end, other than full immersion in a very specific middle-class milieu and an emotional payoff that breaks through the observational distance into something close to poetry. This isn’t an ambitious work of Jewish-American cinema like the Coens’ 2009 masterpiece, “A Serious Man.” Even at feature length (barely), “Shiva Baby” has the aerodynamic weight and trajectory of a well-aimed short story. But if we’re lucky, Seligman has a novel in her, too, and it’s ready to come out. What’s next, bubbeleh?
Written and directed by Emma Seligman. Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed. At Kendall Square and available on demand. 77 minutes. Unrated (as R: sex for hire and, oy, such language)