REVIEW

Shiva Baby is a sharp look at an insular New York Jewish community

Shiva Baby. M, 99 minutes. Three stars.

Who brings a baby to a shiva?

Guests at a funeral keep asking each other that question in this coming-of-age film set deep within New York's Jewish community. It's a neat play on words in a feature that is often razor sharp, if only mildly funny.

The bawling baby that guests are unhappy with is the daughter of an attractive young couple, Max (Danny Deferrari) and Kim (Dianna Agron), who seem to be the only ones to have brought young children along. For others attending, it's a gaffe that only someone who is not truly Jewish, converted or not, could commit.

The other "baby" is Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young college student majoring in gender studies, who is about to graduate. She is at a point in life where she finds herself angry, resentful and confused. No one understands her. And why does she have to attend the shiva (a family event after a Jewish funeral) of her uncle's second wife's sister?

Her overbearing mother, Debbie (Polly Draper), has supplied her with a sound bite, and her well-meaning dad, Joel (Fred Melamed), has jollied her along, but Danielle is still down in the dumps. She chugs down the wine and splurges on the buffet. The nosey, gossiping matrons, rendered in big close-up, single Dani out for special attention. They thought she was vegetarian, so why is she eating meat? She looks like Gwyneth Paltrow "on food stamps" - why has she lost so much weight? What is she doing after graduation? And has she got herself a boyfriend yet?

Writer-director Emma Seligman highlights the insularity and intrusiveness so well. The claustrophobia that Danielle experiences in her encounters with her family and community is particularly well articulated in Shiva Baby, based on the short film that was the director's graduation piece from NYU.

The handsome Max has arrived at the event with his striking blonde wife, variously described by the other woman as a "Malibu Barbie" and a "shiksa princess". However, Kim is no bimbo, but an accomplished entrepreneur said to be the breadwinner.

These revelations give Dani quite a turn. Earlier in the day, she and Max were having sex. Now he turns up with a wife that she didn't even know existed.

A scene from Shiva Baby. Picture: Supplied

A scene from Shiva Baby. Picture: Supplied

That said, it is a puzzle that it matters. On the face of it, the relationship between Dani and Max is transactional, as she is receiving money from him that she was supposed to need for her tuition fees. But she is lying too and doesn't have a place in law school that she can't yet quite afford.

In her director's statement, Seligman explains the sugar relationship that is the backstory to her film - how these exist between older men and the younger women whom they help out by paying for their company on dates. The transaction may or may not involve intimacy.

If Danielle is a sugar babe, isn't Max a bit too young to be the other party? He's older, of course, but the disparity isn't that great. The issue is that Dani has a thing for him and she tries to make him show that he feels the same for her.

A further complication for Dani is her relationship with former bestie, Maya (Molly Gordon). Her old friend does have a place at law school. Dani and Maya went to their prom together and there is some unfinished business between them that they take up again. Everything unravels for Dani in the short space of a day.

One of the pleasures of this slice of insular Jewish community life is the intermittent score by Ariel Marx, with plucking strings and synths and percussion from Sam Mazur. The instruments work together beautifully in counterpoint to the difficult, claustrophobic afternoon, ratcheting up the tension.

With its sharp writing and an especially good performance by its lead actor, Shiva Baby is clearly accomplished. Apparently, the shoot in Brooklyn took an efficient 16 days. It has had a dream run for a first feature, being invited to screen in official selection at prestigious film festivals.

Shiva Baby will appeal to audiences who appreciate its brand of humour but the claustrophobic atmosphere and difficult community dynamics may not go down so well with others.

This story Sharp, claustrophobic slice of life first appeared on The Canberra Times.