Tropic Sprockets / Shiva Baby

By Ian Brockway

Have you ever had the experience of not being allowed to leave a disquieting engagement no matter how hard you tried? With echoes of Buñuel, such is the scenario of the bold and pitch-perfect film “Shiva Baby,” directed by Emma Seligman, based on her short film.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a young Jewish woman having an affair with a married career man Max (Daniel Deferrari). Unexpectedly, Danielle is called away, having to attend the Shiva of a family friend.

Her parents immediately swoop in upon her with the urgency of hawks. Danielle does not know who the name of the deceased is, nor is she familiar with the people who are there. She breaks into a nervous sweat, and gradually throughout the film the camera spins in hectic whirls, the lighting shifting into sickly browns and faded oranges.

Each relative pokes and prods at her like suburban witches with Hansel and Gretel, telling her she looks skinny and underfed. Then inexplicably, Danielle sees Max come in the door under a flurry of smiles and adoration.

She starts to feel nauseous. Max tells the rapturous crowd that his wife Kim (Dianna Agron) is on the way. Danielle’s father (Fred Melamed) says that he heard congratulations are in order since Max has a new baby.

Danielle promptly chokes. Throughout almost all of the entire brief but percussive film, she is taking food, nibbling and then putting it down. Danielle is constantly rocked by the smothering, critical crowd: why isn’t she eating, why isn’t she working with discipline? Isn’t she getting too old to be single? And where did she get that glittering bracelet? It looks like a mocking grin wrapped around Danielle’s wrist, flashing and indecent.

Women and men alike seem to be wearing too much makeup or looking too corpulent.

Danielle’s childhood friend and lover Maya (Molly Gordon) appears with the suddenness of a ghost and we are kept on edge as to whether Maya is a negative or positive force. Perhaps this glib and smirking girl is both. Like characters in a Gothic shocker, Maya and Danielle are mirror twins of one another.

Feeling impulsive, almost as if possessed, Danielle runs to the bathroom to send Max some risqué photos. Later, she resolves to pleasure him, but Max runs off.

Humiliated, Danielle wants to leave, but she is physically blocked at every turn.

Like Darren Aronofsky’s films, as well as Polanski’s, “Shiva Baby” highlights the eerie spookiness of real life. Coupled with forbidding music by Ariel Marx, this very funny and compact film can be almost viewed as horror.

While there are very evident hints of Halloween hi-jinx, the film refreshingly never leaves rational ground. It is also cutting, razor sharp and funny, rivaling Larry David’s verbal misfirings. The scariest thing in the film just may be the quick flash of that silver gold bracelet. Here an all curious and watchful infant (who steals the show and lets out a wail to rival Pazazu) is both an omen of trouble and an entrance into sardonic humor.

“Shiva Baby” is a one of a kind film, comic and quirky, suspenseful and strange.

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