Shiva Baby grew out of a short student film created by Emma Seligman and starring Rachel Sennott. At 78 minutes, it still feels a bit like a short, but it's so packed with eventful scenes you could imagine it running for another half an hour. The film takes place in a 24-hour period, most of which occurs at a shiva. Seligman and cinematographer Maria Rusche do a great job of simultaneously giving the feel of claustrophobia while still finding plenty of space for intimate conversations. People are regularly leaving one crowded room for a less-crowded room where they can talk things out.
The film is steeped in Jewish culture (ironically, Dianna Agron, who plays a shiksa princess, is Jewish, while Rachel Sennott, who plays the lead, Danielle, is not), but it feels universal, a coming of age story with well-meaning but intrusive family and plenty of "experimenting" for Danielle. At times, Seligman inches close to stereotype, but never dives completely in, in part because Danielle is at the center of everything that happens, and we get to know her as an actual person. The cast is good across the board, although for the most part I never figured out exactly who was who (as I say, close to stereotype). Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are on target as Danielle's parents, who want the best for their daughter but don't always know what "the best" might be. Molly Gordon is a standout as Maya, Danielle's ex-lover ... there's a bite to her personality, yet in some ways I found her the most likeable character in the film.
Shiva Baby is relentless in locking Danielle into uncomfortable situations. And there is a baby that cries pretty much every time it turns up on screen, eventually making the soundtrack feel a bit like a horror film. Which Shiva Baby is, in an odd sort of way. At least until what I found to be a semi-happy ending.