Emma Seligman’s debut short, Shiva Baby, adapted to feature length from her NYU thesis short film of the same name, stars Rachel Sennott as a young bisexual woman who encounters her sugar daddy at a family shiva. The ensuing 78 minutes feature one of the most unforgettably tense cinematic experiences, as Seligman dares to find sweetness among a carefully built cesspool of anxiety and family toxicity.
Much like the original short film (which I would highly recommend!), in such a short time, Seligman creates a host of well-built characters that surround and overwhelm the film’s protagonist. Being able to seek out the genuine discomfort in familial situations is the film’s biggest strength, as it utilizes its cast to sculpt a uniquely stressful atmosphere that never quite lets up. The score, composed by Ariel Marx, plays up the tension to strike the perfect balance between cringe comedy in its truest sense and something that often borders on horror.
This is also where the film can sometimes feel aimless, as its narrative threads don’t always converge and some moments feel as though they’re never fully paid off. However, Shiva Baby makes up for these dangling threads with an ending reminiscent of other seminal films in the “anxiety” genre, like those of the Safdie Brothers (Good Time, Uncut Gems) or Scorsese’s After Hours, in its cathartic release.
Limited to one setting for the majority of its runtime, Shiva Baby makes the most of its space, exploring depths in the central house at which the shiva occurs to find new claustrophobic areas to trap its protagonist. Despite occasionally getting lost in its hyper-chaotic antics, Shiva Baby uses its swirling pool of conflict to break down and ultimately try to understand its characters, serving up an indelible comedy in the process.