Where on Earth did Rachel Sennott come from? The young actor's credits include a handful of shorts and some upcoming television work, but after her performance in Shiva Baby from writer/first-time director Emma Seligman, she should probably just be allowed to do whatever she wants—she's a natural.
Here Sennott plays Danielle, a shiftless young Jewish woman flailing in college, working as a sugar baby and struggling on the cusp of late-millennial adulthood when she's forced to sit shiva for someone she doesn't even know at the behest of her parents (the always delightful Fred Melamed and a completely brilliant Polly Draper). There, her former girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) waits with pricks and barbs loaded; there an army of Jewish mothers make constant note of her fluctuating weight; there she learns her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) also knew the deceased, and he's brought along a wife and child Danielle never knew he had.
What follows is a relentless assault of familial and community pressure, Jewish family politics, hysterics and borderline horror movie levels of stress as Danielle's lies about college, her future career and her life come undone around her. Her mother needles endlessly, her sugar daddy acts like he's the wronged party—she can't even eke out a moment for a snack without comment. It's all punctuated by veteran film and television composer Ariel Marx's minimal but Hitchcockian score which takes a mere couple strings and builds a kind of tension that elevates an already sharp comedy into cinematic gold.
Yes, Shiva Baby is quite funny, but in scenes where Danielle's eyes go dead and the flop sweat trickles down her cheeks, a building, stabbing barrage of the absurd feels all too harrowing and all too relatable. Sennott dominates despite notable turns from the entire cast (shoutout to Dianna Agron as the sugar daddy's wife who may or may not know about Danielle) right up until the very last seconds wherein Seligman pulls us out of the perilous nosedive, leaving an open-ended bit of mystery hanging silently alongside one of the most meaningful moments of hope ever captured on film.
+Sennott's fantastic; the score; razor-sharp writing
-Kinda must know a little about Jewish families
Directed by Seligman
With Sennott, Draper, Gordon and Melamed
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, NR, 77 min.