Color, 2020, 77 mins. 24 sec.
Directed by Emma Seligman
Starring Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper, Molly Gordon, Glynis Bell, Dianna Agron Utopia (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The cinema of discomfort has been alive and kicking for a long time, at least since the demise of the Production Code, but in recent years it's been evolving in some wild directions. Dark inde comedies in particular have gotten a lot of mileage out of jamming characters in uncomfortable situations and letting the suspense escalate, and you won't find a tighter or more razor-sharp example than Shiva Baby. Obviously riffing on Jewish cultural tropes for maximum effect, it's a hilarious and almost horrific chamber piece with an ensemble cast knocking it out of the part from the first frame to the last -- but maybe not an experience that will be for all tastes.
After spending an afternoon with her sugar daddy, Max (Deferrari), and skipping the funeral of a family friend, college student and part-time proclaimed babysitter Danielle (Sennott) shows up for the following shiva nearby to please her parents (Melamed and Draper). Upon arrival she finds herself stuck in two awkward situations thanks to the presence of her best friend, Maya (Gordon), who was her prom date and possibly her first sexual experience, and the unexpected Max who shows up with his WASP-y entrepreneur wife (Agron) and their new baby. Surrounded by constant interrogations about her future employment and romantic plans, Danielle starts to become unglued as different aspects of her life messily collide.
Apart from the brief opening scene, Shiva Baby unfolds in real time for maximum anxiety-inducing effect with an escalating string soundtrack amping up both the comedy and suspense. (In that respect among others, the frequent comparisons between this and Uncut Gems are dead on.) It's s deft juggling act that first-time feature director/writer Emma Seligman (adapting her short film of the same title) pulls off extremely well, including some hysterically clever bits of visual framing involving reflections and windows throughout. Obviously the film is very low budget (though the lox and bagel expenditures must have been astronomical), but the cast is still peppered with familiar faces including some great bits for veteran character actors like Jackie Hoffman.
Handled worldwide by Utopia with physical media distribution by Vinegar Syndrome sister company OCN Distribution, Shiva Babycomes to Blu-ray (including a limited slipcase edition with a double-sided poster) looking as immaculate as you'd expect for a 2020 title without any issues to report whatsoever; it looks great throughout. The DTS-HD MA English 5.1 track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also excellent with sparing but very effective use of the rear channels when those strings kick in. (Though solicited as a Region A title, the disc is actually region free.) An audio commentary with Seligman, Sennott, and maybe Gordon is chaotic since they have the movie volume up loud and just react without introducing themselves, but there are some good bits scattered around in here with stories from the shoot. Also included are the original standard and red-band trailers and a Q&A with Seligman and Sennott (36m) via Zoom about the Herb Alpert-inspired poster art, the creation of the short film, the mandate that finally got the film in front of the cameras, the Jewish-themed films and TV shows used for reference, and the elements of psychological horror that crept in along the way.