For those of us who find family functions stressful, Shiva Baby exists to let us know that we’re not alone. For those of us who are Jewish and find family functions stressful, Shiva Baby is a knowingly excruciating exercise into a distinct hell that our goyum friends cannot truly comprehend.

Writer-director Emma Seligman knows the milieu of a Jewish funeral quite well. We first meet young protagonist Danielle (Rachel Sennott) as she is in the throes of screwing her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari). He pays her and she dashes off to meet her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), at the shiva – the ceremony after a funeral where mourners gather after the funeral at the deceased’s house and eat together. Debbie immediately admonishes Danielle about her weight loss and her lack of job prospects, the type of harangue those of us with Jewish mothers will immediately recognize. Then she enters the belly of the beast.

Once Danielle goes into that house, she is bombarded by relatives, all eager to question and belittle her station in life. She is constantly compared to the successful Maya (Molly Gordon), her childhood friend now in law school who is also in attendance. A deep animosity runs between the two women, but before Seligman allows that relationship to become the film’s flashpoint, enter Max (surprise!) with his gorgeous and successful (and extremely not-Jewish) wife, Kim (Dianna Agron) and their infant.

Seligman fleshes out her characters just enough to make them vibrant without bogging us down in backstory. Something happened between Maya and Danielle in the past and it takes time to find out just what had occurred. Danielle, as a character, is a bundle of raw nerves, self-doubt and low-esteem. She is also being attacked from all sides, whether it be her parents, Maya or distant relatives, all the while trying to navigate the sudden appearance of the married man she had been fucking for money in the movie’s opening frames, one she had no idea had a wife and child. Meanwhile, Maya lurks in the background, flaunting her superiority (law school? A Jewish mother’s dream!) while shooting out caustic darts of sarcasm.

For the approximation of a panic attack, though one punctuated with sharply witty moments, Shiva Baby is a nail-chewing comedy of manners. Sinnott is spot-on as the emotionally damaged Danielle, a character who is difficult to like but impossible to blame. Though she is the center of the maelstrom, Seligman smartly surrounds Danielle with a cast of characters who are also undergoing their own miniature meltdowns. How much one can tolerate is a litmus test of extremes. Shiva Baby, like its protagonist, can be hard to like, but somehow, it’s still impossible to completely write it off.

Summary
For the approximation of a panic attack, though one punctuated with sharply witty moments, Shiva Baby is a nail-chewing comedy of manners.
68 %
Stress, baby!
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