Thursday 17 June 2021

Head on: "Shiva Baby"

The new indie comedy Shiva Baby is Messy Women: Kosher Edition, or Messy Girl, if you wanted to get all Streisand about it. Its young Jewish heroine Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is introduced via a session of sex work with the sugar daddy she's tapping to put herself through college; she's evidently rubbing against the Hasidic grain long before her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) call her away to attend a shiva where she's not entirely certain who's died. The bulk of the film plays out at this wake, which just so happens to be attended by Maya (Molly Gordon), a female ex with whom the bisexual Danielle has unfinished business; by the sugar daddy we've just met (Danny Deferrari); by his wife (Glee's Dianna Agron, the image of the skinny blonde shiksa); and by their beautiful, albeit teething newborn baby. Stop me when the humiliation gets enough: the formality of the occasion - every bit the equal of the opening cocktail party in The Graduate, or the funeral at which Alan Partridge reached new heights of prattiness - is only compounded by that awkwardness Danielle has visited upon herself. The big close-ups by which writer-director Emma Seligman seeks to disguise fairly modest resources suggest too many damn people in the same small space. Still, rather than slip through a sidedoor and away into the night, Danielle resolves to style her embarrassment out, and to try and make this event work for her. It's just the walls seem to be closing in, frame by frame. And - oy - do we ever feel it.

The film, thankfully, has the sharpest of elbows: it cuts through, like the extruding nail on which Danielle punctures herself mid-shiva, as if all this weren't agony enough. (There is something so telling about the way she later runs a finger over the wound the nail leaves on her flank: here is a gal who can't leave trouble alone, who will always find a means of making a messy situation worse.) Shiva Baby began life as a short, and it's been extended to just the right length to serve as a statement of directorial intent. Any more of it, and it might have felt like agony for us, too; at 77 minutes, however, we can be reassured this might merely be a phase this character is passing through. And what a character: Danielle is one of the few truly original creations American movies have given us in recent years. That achievement is down in part to Sennott's quiveringly defiant presence, at once irrepressibly naughty and alarmingly naive; that's why we cheer for Danielle and worry for her simultaneously. She has some of the right ideas on how to improve her station in life (and in this house, which gets so crowded it comes to stand for life), but also many of the wrong ones, and she's going about some of the right ones in the wrong way. Still, even as she forgets her phone - and forgets herself - she juts out her jaw, gathers up an armoury of scowls and sullen looks, and steels herself to meet an indifferent world head on, and Seligman has enlisted a small army of great Jewish character actors to represent this very small, ever more constrictive circle. (You've not been walled in until you've been walled in by Fred Melamed.) It's arrived late in the messy-women cycle - and I know that the comedy of embarrassment is always going to be too excruciating for some - but Shiva Baby does carve out its own space, and any built-in suffering has been very carefully and precisely calibrated. Ariel Marx's score plucks as playfully on violin and cello strings as the movie does on your nerves, while Seligman frequently gets a relief-valve laugh just from an inspired framing, as in her coda, with its perfectly Jewish punchline: even when these characters make their excuses and leave, there can be no easy escape.

Shiva Baby is now playing at London's Ciné Lumière, and streaming via MUBI.

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