I’m going to be thinking about Rachel Sennott holding a bagel for a long time. It’s the way she holds it, with mild disinterest bordering on disgust while cradling it with one hand, that’s hard to shake off, a reminder that the best of actors can turn props – yes, even bagels – into capable scene partners when the moment demands it. Sennott’s Danielle may well have a vexed relationship with this Jewish staple, but it’s also clear her furrowed brow and her clenched hand have less to do with cream cheese and lox topped bagel than with the inopportune encounter that motivates much of Emma Seligman’s wildly entertaining and very funny Shiva Baby.
You see, while trying to fend off questions about her post-college plans, her weight and her romantic prospects from every one of her distant relatives and parents’ friends, Danielle finds herself face to face with her sugar daddy Max (a mop-haired and quite dreamy Danny Deferrari) happily greeting her parents, before introducing his wife (Glee’s Dianna Agron) and their baby, making the shiva she’s attending into a true waking nightmare. The way Danielle grips her bagel is an attempt to grab hold of something, even as everything ahead and around her slowly slips away: her life as she knows it is about to change and she’s rudderless, adrift in a room where everyone is all to keen to know what she’s gonna do next. Only, that’s all white noise to her more pressing questions.
That’s because Max’s wife, not to mention the kid, are news to Danielle, whom we first meet when leaving Max’s stylish loft in Manhattan, with a pocketful of cash in hand. The tension about her family life and her extracurricular activities clashing under the auspices of a funeral service for a relative she can’t quite place would be enough to drive Seligman’s plot (as indeed it had in her same-titled short film) but it’s a mere setup for a wildly uncomfortable afternoon that lets us witness Danielle unraveling in increasingly cringe-worthy ways. With her camera sticking close to Danielle, exacerbating the claustrophobic feel in the overcrowded house that plays backdrop to much of Seligman’s film, we’re constantly made to feel as on edge as Danielle. Which is to say, you get why she’d so forcefully grip a bagel.
For in addition to dealing with Max and fumbling her way through implausible excuses as to why they’ve met before, our frazzled protagonist is also forced to interact with Maya (Molly Gordon), her nemesis (or is it ex-girlfriend? or just former best friend? it’s hard to tell). Their prickly chemistry, which finds them bickering one minute and swooning the next, is but one of the ways Shiva Baby continuously finds ways to surprise its viewers. Every time you think you have a handle on Danielle, Seligman throws you off course, peeling yet another facet to this young woman who’s at times flailing and spilling wine on herself, at others desperate enough to send NSFW pics while at a shiva, and yet never seeming like she’s as much of a mess as perhaps everyone around her thinks she is.
Sennott plays Danielle like a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but her flashes of self-assuredness even in the face of constant humiliation are what make Shiva Baby so entertaining. This may be a train wreck in slow motion, but it’s delivered with such warm humor (much of it courtesy of Fred Melamed and Polly Draper, here playing Danielle’s parents) that you’re never compelled to look away.
More to the point, Seligman’s seemingly free-wheeling script, whose rhythms really do make it feel almost like a literate verité film (“He’s married to a shiksa princess. Poor guy.”), goes a long way to making Shiva Baby‘s approach to sex work, to queerness, to consent, and to the many ways they collide in Danielle’s life, feel organically woven into a character study you don’t ever want to end. (Though, trust us, you will breath a sigh of relief when its intentionally interminable final scene comes to a close.)