About 90% of the time I can say with certainty that I am not a fan of so-called “cringe” comedy. The major problem with the concept is that oftentimes a writer or actor will decide that the state of simply being or feeling awkward is enough to generate laughs, and they are quite sadly mistaken. Most of the time the moment is artificially created, and then the performer simply dwells inside it for way longer than it could ever possibly be humorous. It gets to the point where the audience ends up feeling uncomfortable, but not in a way that’s funny. It’s more that we just feel trapped, waiting for the story to get moving again while we squirm in our seats.
Cringe, like all other forms of comedy, relies on things like surprise or relatability to make it work. If we in the audience can’t feel a realistic connection to the character experiencing the moment, we can’t find the humor in it. And then when the scene lingers, it just becomes intolerable. When the awkwardness is completely manufactured in an attempt to fish for laughs, it’s beyond transparent. Embarrassing moments can be ripe for laughs, but when you see people on TV or in movies acting in a deliberately embarrassing way, there’s no sense of empathy, and we just want it to be over, not for the character’s sake, but for our own.
Thankfully, on very rare occasions, the trick is done properly, and when it does, it can actually pay some great dividends. Such is the case with Emma Seligman’s feature debut, Shiva Baby, adapted from her 2018 short film of the same name. With a tremendous balance of sex-positive character study, anxiety-inducing horror film elements, and a constant elevation of the underlying farce, this is cringe comedy at its absolute finest, and should be used as the bar for all who attempt it going forward.
The film stars Rachel Sennott (from TV’s Call Your Mother) as Danielle, a college senior who has a “sugar daddy” relationship with a man named Max (Danny Deferrari). After hooking up at Max’s upscale apartment, he pays her and gives her a very nice-looking bracelet before she has to leave. Rachel then heads to a relative’s house for a post-funeral shiva with her parents (Thirthysomething‘s Polly Draper and professional “oh yeah, THAT guy” Fred Melamed). The awkwardness begins immediately when the bisexual Danielle sees her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon from Booksmart and Good Boys) at the party, and it becomes clear that the somewhat directionless Danielle has been using details about Maya’s life (particularly a bit about getting into Columbia Law School) as part of her “sugar baby” online persona. However, any unresolved feelings pale in comparison to the shock when Max himself shows up at the shiva. Unbeknownst to Danielle, Max is a friend of her parents through his own father, and also knew the deceased.
If Seligman had decided to end things right then and there (which she might have done in her short; I haven’t seen it), we’d have a recipe for some great cringe that would rival some of the best sketch comedy available today. I certainly couldn’t see the Saturday Night Live writers in the current era coming up with something this good, and if they did it would rely way too much on clunky exposition to make the setup work. This script is very dialogue-driven, but it’s in service to the comedy. There’s exposition, certainly, but it’s mostly only to the extent that a crucial detail can set up the next gag. A lot of the higher concepts are still left to our imagination or to the visuals to convey.
But Seligman isn’t content with just letting Danielle stew in an unexpected appearance of the guy she’s banging for money. It’s funny enough to watch them dance around the issue without letting others know, but the real fun is in the escalation of the tension through comedy, which turns this into a delightful farce. It’s not just that Danielle’s sugar daddy happens to be a heretofore unknown friend of the family. It’s that Danielle’s been lying about her life using Maya’s details, and Maya is right there to reveal the truth to Max. It’s that Danielle’s parents are quite assertive and pushy about her getting a job (they think she works as a babysitter, which I’m sure makes for fun roleplay) because they won’t support her forever, and that they bug Max for a connection to get her hired somewhere, letting Max know that Danielle doesn’t actually need money, and could conceivably fuck him for free. It’s that every middle age to elderly person at this shiva is so outwardly pleasant as they “catch up” with friends and relatives, but then passive aggressively talks shit about them the moment the person is out of earshot. For example there’s a line of older women falling over themselves to tell both Maya and Danielle how beautiful they look, then once they leave they comment that Danielle looks anorexic. Some might criticize the film for perpetuating a modern Jewish stereotype, but if you’ve ever been to a shiva or a bar mitzvah (and I have), you’ve seen these exact people. And honestly, you can find people like this in just about any social situation, regardless of cultural or religious background. It’s not exclusive to Jewish people.
This already creates a lot of comic fodder, and part of the reason it works so well is because of how anxious this all makes Danielle. She’s not innocent in the situation and contributes somewhat to her own misery, but anyone who’s ever felt uncomfortable at a party (or any social situation for that matter) and can’t extricate themselves knows the exact level of dread that she’s going through. And that relatability allows for catharsis through the jokes. It’s sort of like the “We’ll laugh about this one day” adage brought to life. Years from now, someone like Danielle might find this all as funny as we do watching it, but in the moment it’s a full-day panic attack, and because we can understand that, we can laugh at the absurdity now.
That sense of foreboding is only elevated by two added elements in the second act. The first is a horror film-esque musical score, composed by Ariel Marx, containing distorted bowed strings and pizzicato plucking to jangle the nerves just so. The second is the biggest escalation of the entire comedy of errors, the arrival of Max’s non-Jewish wife, Kim (played by Dianna Agron, best known as one of the original cast members of Glee who hasn’t died horribly just yet) and their baby. Just to make things even more hilariously off-putting, this happens after multiple suggestions that Danielle should get a boyfriend (her bisexuality and relationship with Maya is dismissed as an experimental phase) and could have any nice Jewish boy she wanted, someone like Max perhaps, if he wasn’t already taken.
This poor girl really does get it from all sides in this film, though she herself is not entirely blameless. She tries to tease Max out of jealousy. When she thinks she has the upper hand she attempts to spin the situation to her favor. Every time an opportunity to leave presents itself, she fails to assert her needs and lets others dominate her, and not in the fun way.
But all of that is forgivable because she’s a human being acting like humans do. That she’s a rudderless 20-year-old makes complete sense in context, something we’ve all experienced to one degree or another. And while the guests kvetch at just about any minor, meaningless bullshit, when it comes down to it, they’re all decent, supportive, non-judgmental people. Honestly, the only one who really casts any aspersions on Danielle is Maya, which at times feels mean-spirited, but Seligman intentionally doesn’t share with us the details of their breakup, so her vacillating support and hostility is up to us to interpret. It’s one of the few flaws of the film, which, at a briskly-paced 77 minutes, certainly had time to flesh their dynamic out a little bit more.
For whatever the reason, the film does not have an MPA rating, so it may be difficult to find a theatre showing it. I suggest an online rental if there’s not a physical location available. I would say the lack of a rating is likely due to pandemic stuff, but that doesn’t quite make sense, as the film debuted at SXSW last year before showing at Toronto, and now it’s gotten the wide release almost a year later. There was plenty of time to submit it. And it’s not like it would get an NC-17 or anything. There’s one sex scene and no nudity, the camera spinning around in the two scenes where Danielle removes her top to prevent us seeing anything. Other than that, they just say “fuck” a few times, but not nearly to Scorsese or Tarantino levels, so this would be a standard R-rating.
All that aside, this is a masterful debut effort. It’s not perfect by any means. Like I said, some people might actually get offended by some of the one-dimensional Jewish side characters. But if you allow yourself to have a sense of humor about people having foibles, you’ll enjoy the brief interruptions as a sort of “catch your breath” moment among all the hilarious cringe and surprisingly well-portrayed anxiety. It’s funny that thanks to the pandemic and the delays in Awards Season, the film industry has had to gluttonize the annual studio dump and the indie darlings that usually come out in February along with the opening salvos of the spring/summer blockbusters and the prestige fare. So a lot of stuff can get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let this be one of them. Take whatever steps you need to find a way to see it, as it’s most definitely the first great film of 2021!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy cringe comedy, and if so, why? If you found out a fuck buddy knew your parents, what would you do? Let me know!