If extremely uncomfortable, overwhelmed, and awkward was a movie, that movie would be Shiva Baby by writer director Emma Seligman. Shiva Baby is like a train wreck – not in a bad way, the film is quite exceptional at squeezing out a claustrophobic sensation of being trapped in an airtight vacuum. But a train wreck in a good way where even though you want to look away, you can’t and shouldn’t because you’ll miss every bit of carnage that snowballs until the final body count is tallied. Only in this case, the train wreck involves overbearing relatives that possess zero hints of personal boundaries, a sugar daddy, his wife and infant child and an ex-girlfriend judging every life choice post break-up. Every aspect of Danielle’s (Rachel Sennott) life will be put under a microscope if left to a confined space without any option to leave on her own accord.
Emma Seligman takes all the pressure and anxiety of being a young adult on the cusp of graduating college and being your own contributing person to society and amplifies those emotions over the course of 78 minutes. Danielle’s chance of survival at the Shiva decreases with every passing minute until her emotions boil over and the pressure can’t be handled in a nonchalant manner.
I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by Danielle’s relatives and neighbors that a panic attack was imminent. Maybe it was due to the tightly placed cinematography by Maria Rusche or the pulse pounding score by Ariel Marx that makes Shiva Baby feel like a horror film.
Danielle is a college senior who isn’t perfect, and she’s reminded of that by her parents Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper). Debbie looks for ways to deflect questions for Danielle about post college life while Joel asks everyone under the roof at the Shiva if they need an intern or know if someone is hiring for a job. Little does her parents know but Danielle is a Sugar Baby to Max (Danny Deferrari) (I swore this was David Harbour at first, he looks just like him) which mutually benefits both of them. And little does Danielle know but Max is married to Kim (Dianna Agron) with a daughter. To add fuel to the fire, Danielle’s ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is constantly down Danielle’s throat while relatives and neighbors compare the two women’s successes in life.
Shiva Baby is full of tension and embarrassing situations. I thought Italians had it bad, but I guess I was wrong. My Big Fat Greek Wedding also shows a chaos within a close knit religious traditional family dynamic. From the moment the film starts to the very end Seligman builds upon the tension with every scene, every moment, every line of dialogue that it finally explodes with two very profound moments of release. The panic sets in early when Danielle arrives to the Shiva. Bombarded with questions about jobs, sex, dating, grades, weight fill the pit of your stomach with an uneasy queasy feeling – we all know how Danielle feels especially with relatives with boundary issues. But with those boundary issues is an expectation especially involving Danielle’s religion. Why can’t Danielle be like Maya? Maya is going to Law School, why is Danielle only a babysitter? Of course, that’s the front for being a Sugar Baby.
Bolstered by Sennott’s outstanding performance Shiva Baby hits on every level imaginable. I’m reminded of this film by the Safdie Brothers films Good Time and Uncut Gems with how well the pace moves the story and the tension builds off the previous interaction within every passing scene. Sennett perfectly captures panic, frustration, anxiety in her body language. She’s a clear standout with all the background noise around her amongst a solid supporting cast. Every twist and turn, every wrench thrown at Danielle is handled the way any person would take them.
Sexuality plays a major role in Seligman’s story. Danielle is bi-sexual and while her parents and relatives may not like it, they don’t explicitly condemn the actions – although Debbie consistently says Danielle is experimenting and it’s just a phase. Maybe Sennott is drawing from personal experiences, but it gives an added dimension to Danielle’s character.
Shiva Baby though not a perfect film is technically sound from a tight script to a horror esque score and cinematography that oozes tension and panic attacks. Led by a brilliant performance by Sennott and a strong supporting cast, Seligman creates a progressive outlook on sexuality by the choices of her characters. Coming in at 78 minutes, Shiva Baby is contained to a small set, like a sitcom or a stage play and still has the intimacy needed to draw a connection to the characters.
Written By: Emma Seligman
Directed By: Emma Seligman
Music By: Ariel Marx
Cinematography: Maria Rusche
Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron
Release Date: April 2, 2021
Running Time: 1 Hour 17 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
My Score: 4.5 out of 5
Based On: Shiva Baby by Emma Seligman (short story)