When is a horror movie not a horror movie?
When it’s Shiva Baby, a supremely awkward dramedy about a young woman who runs into her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy at the same shiva (Jewish wake).
That sounds like the set-up for a classic comedy-of-errors, but writer and director Emma Seligman has infused her film with so much dread, tension and claustrophobia, Shiva Baby is as teeth-grindingly mortifying as anything with a supernatural threat.
From the suspenseful string composition of its soundtrack to the queasy close-ups and increasingly saturated lighting, Shiva Baby is a masterstroke in how to use the conventions of a different genre to dial up the stakes of another.
It’ll make you viscerally queasy, the kind of stomach-churning sensation that standing up and walking out of the room won’t even shake off.
It’s a good thing Shiva Baby is only 78 minutes because any longer and you may faint from its suffocating tone – only metaphorically, of course.
Final year university student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) has a side hustle as a “sugar baby”, in which older and richer man Max (Danny Deferrari) pays her for sex in his spacious Manhattan loft.
Later in the day, Danielle meets her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) outside a shiva for a family acquaintance.
First, Danielle is surprised to see her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is present, but she’s ashen when a familiar face is talking to her father among the crammed quarters of the suburban house – it’s Max.
The shiva soon becomes a prison with a gazillion wardens, and Danielle their torture victim. Every time she turns around, there’s a family friend who demands to know if she’s eating enough, what she’s planning to do after college or who she’s seeing.
Her parents are shamelessly trying to network her into a job or an internship, while Maya’s mother is playing a game of one-upmanship that would make any Zen person explode with anxiety.
Just to mix up the metaphors, it’s as if everyone is a zombie and they all want a piece of her, feeding on the promise of her youth with their disapproval, passive-aggression and micro-aggressions. And there’s no promise of release.