Expanded from a 2018 short film, Shiva Baby is a complicated and claustrophobic film about being a woman in your early-twenties. Danielle (Call Your Mother’s Rachel Sennott) has a sugar daddy who pays her for sex, but unlike many of the other girls on these sugar baby apps, Danielle doesn’t actually need his money because her parents pay for her tuition.
Shiva Baby opens brazenly with an unconvincing orgasm, followed by an awkwardly silent car ride. It’s not sexy, but it’s not seedy… it just is. From her sugar daddy’s loft, Danielle meets up with her loving yet clueless parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), for a shiva—the name for a Jewish wake after a funeral.
Most of the film takes place in one overfilled home, making it a stressful examination of overbearing relations and nosy family friends. Is Danielle single? Is she working? What’s she studying? She’s not quite sure how the answer to any of those questions. Her parents think she’s in law school… but she’s not, her friend is. Her parents think she might be seeing a nice boy, but she isn’t. She’s not exactly failing at life, but she’s hardly making her family proud about her choices.
Further complicating the day is Danielle’s high school ex-girlfriend Maya (Booksmart’s Molly Gordon), whose aggressive emotions towards her are severely under-explored. Then walks in the sugar daddy from that morning, Max (Danny Deferrari), with his beautiful wife Kim (Glee’s Dianna Agron) and a screaming 18-month-old baby. Kim’s the woman every mother wants: beautiful, maternal, and self-made. She’s redolent of Rose Byrne’s Helen in Bridesmaids (2012), as someone too perfect and likeable to be honestly liked.
Shiva Baby’s plot hits predictable notes, but Rachel Sennott’s frenzied performance keeps one’s attention, as her pestering relatives (including a scene-stealing Jackie Hoffman) ignore her personal space. She also loses her phone mid-way through making ‘special arrangements’ and has to regain it before it falls into the wrong hands. She’s left holding her sugar daddy’s literal baby, who that morning she never knew existed, as his beautiful girl boss wife dotes on her husband. However, none of this ever feels tiresome.
We’re dropped into the Danielle’s day with little context, mirroring the character’s own uncertainties about who has actually died (a hilarious running joke), and watch as she’s met with a disorientating barrage of questions and awkward small talk. Haven’t many of us been thrown into the deep end at a family get-together without any clue what’s going on?
Shiva Baby is a confident and exciting debut from Emma Seligman. Her writing is sharp and sympathetic, naturally laying out the relationships between everyone in the room. Danielle’s parents are refreshingly supportive of their aimless daughter, too. Debbie especially seems concerned for her wellbeing, avoiding the ‘Jewish mother’ trope.
Sennott is excellent as Danielle, the impulsive and confident yet completely defeated twenty-something. She’s sexually liberated, confident in her bisexuality, but totally aimless. Danielle feels like a fully realised character, cut from the same cloth as Jenny Slate in Obvious Child (2014) or the two leads from Broad City (2014-19).
The actress effortlessly flows between the different versions of Danielle—who her parents think she is, who Max thinks she is, who Maya thinks she is, and perhaps a version of who she really is. Her sexual fluidity and lack of career goals is almost expected, rather than merely tolerated. All the Gen Z anxiety, confusion, and shame is channelled perfectly into the shiva backdrop.
Accompanied by Ariel Marx’s anxiety-inducing score, Shiva Baby has an amplified sense of claustrophobia. Conversations are fast-paced, using discomfort and humiliation as a means to project Danielle’s helplessness. Glass is broken and the baby screams, family members talk over each other without listening to the answer to their questions, and doors bang. It’s an uneasy yet gripping watch.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the awkward anxiety of Shiva Baby, although it probably does help. Beneath the Jewish jokes is a weary acknowledgement about how we use humour and laughter as a defence mechanism. Shiva Baby identifies a connection between self-deprecating Jewish humour and the dark comedy Gen Z and Millennials are often drawn to.
Once the shiva ends, everyone gets back into their cars and go about their lives. Despite its brief 77-minutes, you come to feel like you really know these colourful characters. You’ll want to follow them back to their homes to see what other disagreements they’ll get into. Not a single moment is wasted.
Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott have announced themselves as two of the brightest names in indie filmmaking with Shiva Baby. Agoraphobic, aggressively funny, this little comedy will stick in your mind long after the shiva’s ended and everyone’s gone home.
USA • CANADA | 2020 | 77 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Emma Seligman.
starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed & Dianna Agron.