Shiva Baby review – black comedy is a festival of excruciating embarrassment

This debut feature from 25-year-old writer-director Emma Seligman is an amusing, self-aware, indulgent and transparently personal chamber piece, developed from an earlier short she submitted as her NYU thesis film. It could have been partly inspired by the party scene at the beginning of The Graduate, the one where smug oldsters tell Dustin Hoffman’s character he should be getting into plastics.

Actor and online comic Rachel Sennott plays Danielle, aimlessly out of college and picking up cash with what she tells her parents is a regular “babysitting” gig; one day she shows up with them at a shiva (that is, the Jewish observance not dissimilar to a wake) expecting to endure only the usual questioning from relatives about why she is so thin, why she doesn’t have a boyfriend and what she’s going to do with her life.

But to her horror she sees Max (Danny Deferrari), the wealthy married man with whom she has been having sex for money. Max, though venal and smugly exploitative, had also been becoming increasingly tender towards Danielle, believing her story that she needs cash for grad school. He too is aghast at their unexpected meeting in this unsexy setting: she is a very different, subdued, schoolgirlish and slightly brattish figure, from whose tutting relatives he indirectly learns that the grad school story is nonsense, and she has no plans, nor any pressing need for money, because her adoring parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) are picking up every tab. To add to this festival of excruciating embarrassment, Danielle sees Maya (Molly Gordon), a young woman she once semi-officially dated, and with whom she may still be in love.

This is a very intense, claustrophobic black comedy whose inner anxiety is underlined by Ariel Marx’s nerve-jangling score, which seems always to be leading us to some eruption of emotional hurt. And, in fact, there are two or three moments where the buzz of conversation is suddenly stilled by the raising of voices. The film is maybe a little callow, but it’s an undoubtedly impressive and accomplished debut.

• Shiva Baby is released on 9 June in cinemas and on 11 June on Mubi.