I ask this question in deadly seriousness: is there anything more truly horrible than an awkward social interaction?
That’s the question that Shiva Baby, the debut feature from Emma Seligman, has to ask its audience, and the answer, of course, is absolutely fucking not. Following Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a sugar baby who runs into her sugar daddy with his wife and child at a Shiva, it’s probably one of the most horrifying non-horror films that I’ve ever seen.
As I’ve said before, comedy and horror are about one inch apart on the Great Genre Tree, and Shiva Baby is the kind of comedy that knows that. Essentially taking place inside a single house as Danielle tries to navigate the mess of her personal life at an already highly-strung social event, Seligman finds a way to turn the awkwardness into full-blown terror in the funniest way possible.
For those of us doomed to powerful levels of social awkwardness – well, you can begin by starting a film blog, but after that, you’ll figure out that the anxiety induced by the juggling of several social roles at once is probably the most unsettling thing in the world. Danielle is desperately trying to balance all the versions of herself that she’s been carefully keeping apart – her work as a sugar baby, the dutiful daughter to her parents, the messy ex to a previous girlfriend also in attendance – and, in the rapidly-closing walls of the home where the Shiva is taking place, things take a turn into the truly terrifying.
Seligman finds a way to turn the crushing awkwardness and claustrophobia of social awkwardness into genuine horror that comes back around to comedy again; those panicked close-ups, Sennott’s increasing disarray, every worst-case-scenario turning in on itself until the whole thing is crushed into one microcosm of sheer discomfort. The climax of this movie is shot like a slasher villain’s chase, the doomed social nightmare of Sennott’s life hunting her like a knife-wielding maniac through the chaos of the Shiva. It’s a Frasier-esque comedy of manners shot and delivered like a Friday the 13th movie, and I can’t get enough of just how well that works.
It’s an inspired way to put together a comedy like this, even more impressive when you consider that it’s Seligman’s debut feature, and just makes for one of the most high-tension, comedy-of-errors, watch-through-your-fingers-while-you’re-laughing-too-hard-to-see comedies I’ve seen in years.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Digital Spy)