Befitting Danielle’s discomfort, Seligman and her cinematographer Maria Rusche keep the camera in tight close-up for most of the film’s 78 minutes. This puts the viewer squarely in her head. When she’s surprised by an aunt sidling up behind her, so is the viewer. When Danielle is repulsed by an overloaded egg salad sandwich squelching its way into someone’s mouth, so is the viewer. Additionally, conversations aren’t muted or reduced when Danielle is around, so the constant cacophony of chatter serves as an accompaniment to Ariel Marx’s score. Emotional or sensory harm isn’t enough for Danielle, as Seligman sticks her with protruding nails and dumps coffee on her blouse. The effect is total immersion, such that bathrooms become oases and an alley behind the house feels like a beachside resort instead of an eastern seaboard suburb.
Within this construction of an oppressive atmosphere, the other party attendees are putting on clinics of passive-aggressiveness. Each new middle-aged to elderly relative that approaches Danielle knows exactly what she’s studying but they make her repeat it over and over again, only to wander away from the conversation oozing disdain for her choices. Compounding matters is Danielle’s mom’s good-natured grooming of her daughter, leaving Danielle with the unenviable choice of looking like an infant by submitting or a brat for resisting, both of which confirm what her relatives think of her. Max, who Danielle cannot help but buzz around and make her own cruel comments aimed at his wife, is an unconscionable dirtbag and a skilled liar that Danielle can’t rattle, try as she might. The only outlier is Maya, who by appearing honest and decent automatically becomes the most appealing person at the party.
Throughout it all, Danielle’s motivations for why she does what she does are stripped away, leaving a raw and vulnerable person who’s as concerned about her future as her relatives pretend to be. Sennott, who never leaves the frame, shows all her rebelliousness and shame and hurt feelings alongside a cutting and acerbic nature that serves her well in this den of vipers. She and Seligman both are strong new finds, as is what should be a breakout exhibition for both of them. Shiva Baby impresses as much as it horrifies. The ick factor of all those mayonnaise-based salads being eaten cannot be overstated. B+