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Movie Review: 'Shiva Baby' Is Comedy, But It Puts You Through The Wringer

I remember watching the horror movie The Descent alone in a theater—if you’re not familiar, it takes place in a deep cave system, which means people squeezing through really tight spaces. It made me so uncomfortable that, since I was alone, I spent the movie pacing up and down the aisle.

The new comedy Shiva Baby doesn’t initially seem anything like The Descent, but I often found myself with the same oppressively claustrophobic feeling, and while I didn’t get up and walk around my living room, writer-director Emma Seligman is so successful at this that it made my head swim.

As the movie begins, we meet Danielle, who’s leaving the apartment of her sugar daddy, Max, off to meet her prototypically Jewish parents at a shiva for some distant relative. Unexpectedly, Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, Maya, is also attending, and more surprisingly, Max shows up as well. As the shiva drags on, Danielle tries to negotiate her extremely over-involved mother, her interactions with Maya, and her secret relationship with Max, who, it turns out, has extra secrets of his own.

It’s ultimately a fairly simple setup with a whole lot of complications, and the way Seligman dribbles out the revelations of who’s hiding what and the truth behind their actions is pretty clever. But it’s that swirling claustrophobia she creates that really makes the movie shine, as Danielle tries to process everything that’s going on while her mother and relatives constantly talk at her, around her, and through her. Couple that with the slyly dissonant score and it’s enough to make you scream.

I mentioned recently how subjective comedy is, but Shiva Baby is a good example of how a movie can work even if you don’t connect with the comedic style. I struggle with extremely uncomfortable comedy, but Seligman runs everything so well that even if the movie is only occasionally actually funny to me, it’s easy to appreciate. And while she does put us through a hellish wringer, she caps off the film with a hint of kindness, and to me, that makes all the difference.

Shiva Baby is on HBOMax

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.