The best comedies are those that are not funny. Or least, morally speaking, they should not be. It has a lot of names – black comedy, dark humour, etc. It’s a genre that creates a very special effect on the audience – confusion. We are not very sure when it is right to laugh and when it is not. If you can remember the experience of watching a film in a cinema hall, you may recall that in the first few minutes people are not too careful about what they are laughing at. Everything seems to demand laughter because it’s the beginning and, in the beginning, how can something that looks funny be anything otherwise?
Shiva Baby, too, starts like this.
Right in the first scene, there’s a man who makes a comment about being invested in ‘rising female entrepreneurs’. You cannot miss the context in the scene and if you are a woman, especially, you are bound crack up. Then, there is a funeral service that must be attended but our protagonist, Danielle, has no clue who has died. Little bites for giggles and chuckles here and there.
It stays this way for some time until a little before the seventh minute where everything changes – Danielle and her parents enter the house. She is immediately brought under fire over a wide spectrum of questions ranging from weight loss and singlehood to financial dependence and uncertain post-grad plans. But it’s a family gathering and there is only so much she can do to explain herself without sticking out like a sore thumb, which she does anyway. However, that moment when Danielle’s father argues that feminism is not a career and she screams out – “It’s not my career! It’s a lens!” – is such a vulnerably honest five seconds and what a relief it is to hear it finally said.
The film is dotted with moments like this, when the pressure mounts, but there is never any release, which is what makes it all the more unbearable. In the arena in which she must attempt to stand her ground, Danielle only has smiles and lies for her defence, but as a person she is a terrible liar. It is impossible to explain in words but Rachel Sennott’s face is a pool of crystal-clear water where nothing can remain hidden. If she tries to make a show of confidence but is inwardly clutching her stomach in, you can see all the mismatched thoughts tumbling around in her head and making no sense. Everyone else moves at a sloth-slow pace. Not one person knows all of the fronts on which she is waging battle with herself and others. And try as she may, she just cannot tell the truth. Resultantly, after a point, we, as the audience, wish the camera would just stop following her because even the second-hand embarrassment is too much to bear.
But the aim of a good film to ensure that you can never look away. So every time the vultures close in on her, a particular sound creeps in. It’s only a couple of flicks on a string but it’s the kind of note that really sets your teeth of edge. And every time it pinches you in your seat of comfortable laughter because this is not the kind of soundtrack you hear in comedy films. This kind of eerily sparse music is typical of horror and thriller films, and the decision to fuse the genre of horror/thriller with comedy in terms of music belongs to composer extraordinaire Ariel Marx. With ears attuned minutely to every facet of the story, her music has the quixotic and envious quality of camouflaging seamlessly with the emotion in every beat of the scene.
Music in a film usually has the quality of elevating a scene. But Ariel Marx is something else. In the scene where Danielle is literally encircled by her family, it almost feels like all of the elements – the music, the cuts, the dialogue and the actors’ faces – all fall in the same line. No one thing sticks out to catch your attention, which, if you think about it, is a stroke of genius. When all of these elements work in harmony, hitting all the beats together, the effect is not an addition – it is a multiplication.
This tiny idea might very well have been watermarked across the film. Take a somewhat troubled girl. A sugar daddy. An ex-forbidden love. Add more minor but troubling elements – a mother who tries to be supportive but cannot be entirely taken into confidence, a bumbling father stuck in the good old days when his daughter was a little girl, and a throng of buzzing relatives. Bring them all together in the most combustible space possible – an overcrowded home – and watch them collide incessantly with each other, like radioactive atoms inside a nuclear reactor.
It’s one of the rules of thumb of screenplay writing – don’t write it exactly like it is. But that’s really just another way of saying, try to understand how it really is. Of course, funerals are sad occasions. But go into the details. You would find people mourning at a funeral. But you would also find an abusive uncle eyeing prey. You’d also find kids running after the buffet. You’d also find someone itching to crack a joke. Life is stranger than fiction. So when fiction finds the cruelty in itself to live up to the strangeness of life, what we get is a good film.
There this line which, to the best of my memory, is from The Queen’s Gambit and is said to chess prodigy Beth Harmon. The crux of it is this – if you’re playing like this at such a young age, imagine where you’ll be when you’re older.
Director Emma Seligman is 25 years old. Now, imagine.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.