Writer and director Seligman bottles these interpersonal tensions and slowly boils them, upping each situation by the right amount until the film’s ultimate crescendo and final punchline. The result is a painfully funny comedy that feels both universally relatable in its portrayal of awkward family dynamics and very specific to Danielle’s experience of watching her sex life collide with her religious community. There is hardly any other ally she can count on in the shiva, and each new piece brings a new set of annoyances. Before even entering the house, Danielle is on her guard against the judgment of others, but that’s all she seems to find in the whispers and side glances. But it is not without a valiant defensive effort. She repeats her answers about what she does with her life with her parents to keep everyone on the same page. It’s the kind of mental gymnastics and face-saving false jokes, like a painful smile to soothe disapproving eyebrows. Seligman captures these performative nuances with astute precision.
But Seligman’s masterful approach wouldn’t have been so effective without Sennott’s extremely exasperated performance. She hits the perfect tone of feeling annoyed by her parents and mortified by the situation of getting stuck with her ex and her sugar daddy. Each piercing gaze, each contraction of the muscles of the face and each heightened voice translates his indignation hidden behind his simulated smile. Danielle’s interactions with Max and Maya each have their own unique rhythm and emotional arc. With Max, there’s a slow suspense of whether or not they’ll continue their arrangement now that she knows he has a wife and a child, a detail that was previously hidden from her. Maya is much more confrontational, needling Danielle in front of others and cutting her façade with direct questions. Their clashes resemble the summits of Danielle and Max’s lows, an unsettling roller coaster ride that will soon crash.
Cinematographer Maria Rusche, who captures the dark tones of a house in mourning with all the tinkles of a family nightmare that you can’t seem to escape, adds fuel to the fire of Seligman’s staging and Sennott’s performance. Sometimes “Shiva Baby” feels like a Luis Buñuel movie, where no matter how hard Danielle tries to avoid certain people and break with false jokes, she is invariably stuck with that group. Editor-in-chief Hanna A. Park’s crossover reinforces the already tense choreography of this claustrophobic gathering. To top off the film’s foreboding spirit, Ariel Marx layers heavy scores on top of a final dose of unease in Danielle’s mind, as pinched chords and tense notes accompany her inner chaos.