While at NYU, writer-director Emma Seligman was told by a professor that she should write about something she knew for her finals. Sugar babies and shivas came to mind. What started out as a short film has now become Seligman’s feature debut and it’s funny as hell. “Shiva Baby” is centered on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a near-college graduate who secretly makes a living as a call girl. She attends a shiva with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) where she runs into an ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) who is surprisingly married to a hot wife and they have a newborn. Not a problem, right? She is a professional sex worker and he’s just a client. Wrong. “Eizeh balegan!”
“Shiva Baby” begins with an afternoon tryst as Danielle does her best cowgirl impersonation while doing the grownup with Max (Danny Deferrari). She makes a living as a sex worker — although her parents think she babysits for extra cash — and Max, who’s quite older, is more than one of her tricks. He buys her expensive jewelry, and they have a connection, so Danielle thinks of him as a sugar daddy.
Minutes later our enterprising protagonist is out the door and on her way to shiva to mourn the loss of someone, she’s not really sure who. Danielle is only going because she promised her parents and so she’s just holding up her end of the bargain. Besides mom and dad are still footing Danielle’s living expenses.
Molly Gordon (“Booksmart”) plays Maya, a law school graduate who once had a high school fling with Danielle, and yes, everyone at the shiva is aware of it. Debbie is a little embarrassed by her daughter’s lesbian affair and after spotting Maya and her parents arriving at the shiva she whispers to Danielle “No funny business with Maya” to which Danielle responds, “What is that supposed to mean?!”
Seligman’s lens follows Danielle from one awkward moment to the next as the jokes fly rapidly. We watch as she walks around with a dazed look on her face relying on her quick wit to respond to the guests’ prying questions. Several times, I busted out laughing just from Sennott’s facial expressions. Her comedic timing is impeccable.
Eventually, Maya and Danielle come face to face at the buffet table where the conversation goes from complimentary, “Congrats on law school, that’s really great,” to confrontational, “Thanks, it only took you like four f-----g months.” As if that wasn’t awkward enough, Max shows up at the shiva and much to Danielle’s surprise, he’s married to a shiksa princess (Dianna Agron from “Glee”) and they have a newborn baby. Oh yeah, did I mention they’re looking for a new babysitter?
Too bad Simon and Garfunkel aren’t featured on the soundtrack. Think of “Shiva Baby” as a riotous version of “The Graduate” (or in this case “Undergraduate”) with more laughs and Rachel Sennott in the Dustin Hoffman role as she traverses the Jewish mourning ritual while answering questions about her post-grad career plans, juggling an ex-lover, and dealing with a sugar daddy whose wife is getting suspicious after she notices Danielle is sporting the same piece of jewelry.
The film has a Woody Allen vibe as neurosis and zingers coexist. Fred Melamed is terrific as Danielle’s father, the character actor has appeared in seven of Allen’s films, Polly Draper knocks out one of her best roles since “thirtysomething,” Molly Gordon is a pleasure to watch, but it’s Rachel Sennott who strikes comedy gold as Shiva Baby.
(3 ½ stars)
In theaters and available PVOD