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By Leah Greenblatt
April 01, 2021 at 04:04 PM EDT
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SHIVA BABY
Rachel Sennott in 'Shiva Baby'
| Credit: Utopia

Death, you could say, does not become her. A Jewish funeral service turns into 47 kinds of social suicide for a flailing undergrad named Danielle (Rachel Sennott) — full-time gender-studies major, part-time call girl — in Shiva Baby, writer-director Emma Seligman's blithely ruthless feature debut.

Baby begins with a literal bang (on the couch of a light-flooded loft, with a "client"), and a voicemail: Danielle is overdue at the shiva of a family acquaintance. "What's my sound bite again?" she asks her boisterous, bighearted mother (Polly Draper) and father (Fred Melamed) before heading into the post-burial gauntlet of bagel spreads and awkward mingling. Their best advice is just to smile pretty and vaguely upsell her post-graduation plans.

That turns out to be a gross underestimate of all she will ingloriously achieve over the next 75 or so minutes, once she walks in to find both her semi-estranged best-friend-slash-former-lover Maya (Good Boys' great Molly Gordon) and the sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) whose leather sectional she so recently dismounted in attendance. Maya, at least, seems more prepared to see her than Deferrari's Max, a neck-bearded thirtysomething with a blond shiksa wife (Dianna Agron) and screaming baby daughter in tow.

He happily believed that the money he's been giving Danielle for sex was going toward her law school degree; she didn't even realize he had a child — or that in all probability the payments for her services have unwittingly come from Agron's Kim, a gorgeous girl-boss type who's clearly the family breadwinner. None of this misses Maya, who turns out to be one who's actually in law school; she's already a practiced litigator when it comes to her old friend's evasions and existential freakouts.

As Danielle pings between them all, a frantic, sweaty pinball trapped somewhere between the rugelach table and a waking nightmare, her clueless but well-meaning parents seem bent on drawing each interaction out for maximum messiness (a familiar riff that veteran character actors Draper and Melamed, to their credit, have a ball with). Either way, it's all in service to Seligman's particular brand of discomfort comedy — a sort of endless festivus of cringe so visceral it borders on body horror. Enter Shiva at your own risk then: a hell of Danielle's own making maybe, but still a witty, jittery trip. Grade: B

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