Filmic comedy is rarely as modern or as razor sharp as it is in Shiva Baby. While we live in an age of fabulous and diverse comedy, from fresh – or previously underrepresented – perspectives, this has been somewhat relegated to television, short form video and podcasts. The contemporary comedy film still often feels formulaic or overblown, with sharp comedy blunted by the need to fit an accepted filmic structure. The great modern comedies are, more often than not, films that do things in extension to just being a comedy – films that work on a resonant emotional level or that work as sly genre blends. There is a touch of genre blending in Shiva Baby, with a dissonant horror-style string score, but Emma Seligman’s debut is cringe-comedy to its core.
Expanded from her own short film, writer and director Seligman’s feature is almost entirely set during a Jewish funeral service. A college student, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), on the cusp of graduation leaves her Sugar Daddy to attend a funeral service with her pushy parents, where things quickly become overwhelmingly awkward and completely anxiety inducing. Figures she would rather not be there are there, she has to navigate complex social dynamics and constantly deal with well meaning, but often insufferable, people as she tries to socially survive the occasion. She is in a completely liminal place, her life ready to spiral out anywhere, and her decisions and positioning do not fit with the expectations of the older generation. This clash of her and them is the catalyst for the comedy, as she is made to feel like a mess, a failure and so much else.
For me, the brilliance of this film is in how it uses comedy. This is a progressive film that features identities often ignored by film and, for a shamefully long time, that have been reduced to punchlines or targets. Here, these individuals sew the seeds of comedy. This is a film that manages to be shocking and outlandish without ever punching down; the comedy derives from sex positive attitudes and open approaches to sexuality but it is never at the expense of this. The cringing, and there’s a lot of this, is due to culture clashes and is at the expense of old fashioned, yet out of touch, politeness. It is not funny because our main character is bi – nor should it be (though many comedies don’t understand that) – it is funny because of the generational gap between liberated younger people and the rigid olds. By being more open and accepting, the film is able to scandalise – pulling its scandal from the reaction to certain things as opposed to the acts themselves. The film does not shame or belittle, it merely juxtaposes for effect.
Why this is so good is that it is the perfect proof that you can do challenging and boundary pushing comedy without just being offensive (on obvious truth that so many deny). Intolerant parts of society will keep saying that progressivism is ruining comedy – they are wrong – and films like Shiva Baby (and please, let us have more films like Shiva Baby) show that you can be outrageous, boundary pushing and hilarious while being forward thinking at the same time – or just accepting and modern. The film knows where to put the punchlines and knows exactly what boundaries it can push and what boundaries need to be respected.
A lot of this is down to the film’s excellent script. The dialogue is sharp an acerbic with a pleasing predictability as the farce of awkwardness evolves all around us. Characters are well drawn and have a sense of history to them, the world feels lived in and like it extends beyond the beginning and end of the film. This is also a symptom of the film’s short length. It doesn’t outstay its welcome and the concision – 77 minutes – is an appropriate duration for the levels of stressful hilarity the film is working with. Though, you will leave the film wanting more. There is a clever little reveal at the end that lets you know exactly what is about to happen and, well, I did want to see that thing happen. Though, that feeling – and that restraint – is very powerful.
In general, the script is so tight and so focused, completely lacking in superfluity. This is only highlighted by the direction, which keeps up the intensity and claustrophobia. There is also smart use of rack focus, used to isolate key details and to limit our world to the central dramas. Having a conversation about Danielle in the background out of focus while we concentrate on her in the foreground, as she looks away, and on her reactions – that’s a great way of subjectively tying us to the character and a great way of gleaning visual humour. It also really shows the effects of these conversations – and their real purpose. But then shifting the focus to the background as the conversation shifts: that’s genius. The focus work throughout is such a great tool for keeping the viewer trapped, as is the frequent use of closeups and constrained angles. There is little room to breathe here and this is the perfect partner for the comedy.
Alas, there is an inescapable artifice to the film. This is mostly pleasing as so much of the joy comes from the tightly wound machinations, and from dramatic irony and contrivance. Yet, while it is satisfying it can also feel forced. The naturalistic dialogue can be at odds with the overtly manufactured scenarios, but this is a slight quibble. However, the piece may have worked better on stage, or on the page. We are at an event with a lot of guests but their reality only exists as a foundation for our main characters. Wider guests exist as props, with their dialogue mixed down to foreground the film’s primary players. This helps the narrative, and the humour, but it is odd. Live action film, by its nature, deals in verisimilitude (unless it is actively working against it). It is somewhat odd to see people, who appear to be real – in a setting that appears to be real – function as pawns, or as set dressing.
Despite minor concerns, Shiva Baby is just a delight. It is fresh, cutting and modern in a way that its contemporaries just are not. In the end, the character work – and the feel of a wider world – would perhaps be better served in television. Though, the feature film space allows this to be a one and done. These are not characters that exist in service of a plot and a television series would push things too far – it would necessitate a progression this work does not need. Shiva Baby is perhaps over directed, and definitely has rough edges. But, the script is so good – and the direction is still effective. This is a terrific debut and hopefully the start of much future brilliance for Seligman.