Channeling elements of the social thriller and horror genre to form a near-perfect tragicomedy. Emma Seligman returns to her 2018 short film of the same name and adapts her work into feature form, telling the tale of Dani (Rachel Sennott), a bisexual, drifting college student who, at the eponymous Shiva, is forced to face both the wrath of her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) and the revelation that her sugar daddy is a married father – oh! And he knows her parents too, just in case it wasn’t awkward enough.
I doubt this here review will be the first time you’ve come across given the critical reception that’s molded it into a circuit darling, sweeping nominations and awards alike, and it’s one of those rare occasions in which such hype is more than deserved – an absolute star-maker for its young cast and still relatively ‘new’ director.
It’s a little difficult to keep this from devolving into ode-like ramblings (I’m trying my best, believe me) but so many of the film’s departments are truly worthy of that style of high praise, and none more so than the writing. Seligman pens the reworking of her short and that authenticity to the source material shines through. Fleshing out, to great extents, the character of Dani and allowing the writer-director to show a whole other side than what was the case in the foundational eight-minute piece. Stylistically speaking it has parallels to the likes of Steve Coogan’s most known work: the character of Alan Partridge – a festival of pure awkwardness and second-hand cringe, the ability to carve out such a deep, rich, lived-in world and situational comedy around that is no mean feat.
Bringing that to life though we’ve got the cast, fronted by Rachel Sennott, who reprises her role as protagonist, Dani from the short in a move that truly shows her talents whilst adding to that aforementioned ‘authentic’ feel. It’s a role that feels almost purpose-made for Sennott whose subtle comedic performance was incredibly impressive and contrasts well against the angst-driven dramatic sub/side plots interspersed throughout. Which is a point worth noting, Sennott and, by extension, her character, isn’t always a proactive entity within the film and that shift in the lead’s control makes for incredible viewing: keeping the narrative constantly winding and unpredictable which trickles down to its main star’s performance showing Sennott’s comparably more ‘serious’ acting chops whilst never faltering tonally.
This is practically a one-woman show where acting is concerned, though. I mean no disrespect to the supporting cast, but they’re little more than just foils for our protagonist to bounce off of. Molly Gordon’s Maya is the nearest to a proper character and the duo seem to have proper and strong chemistry which makes for a few memorable moments but the others are literally cameos. Fred Melamed makes for an entertaining bumbling father and Dianna Agron’s scorned lover, Kim, is a nuanced dramatic turn but they feel a little disconnected from the film’s core which takes away slightly.
Back on the positive though, I can’t laud Seligman’s direction enough. I made note in the opening to the use of horror and social thriller conventions and that infusion is a masterstroke – it shows a knowledge of how to manipulate an audience via the likes of a score and an incredible understanding of the rom-com genre to note where innovations can be made and how, via a single film, she could revolutionize that genre. Directing Maria Rusche’s cinematography, the capturing of this chaos couldn’t have been any better: from claustrophobic cringe to moments of physical comedy, not to mention the shift in visual style to complement the then tone, Shiva Baby is so superbly technically sound that there’s practically endless rewatch value, especially when you’re up for a dose of social awkwardness that’s not The Office.
With staggering quality, Shiva Baby is a star-maker for those involved and is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the finest films of 2020, a highlight from a blighted year and one I can’t recommend highly enough.