Adapted from her own 2018 short film of the same name, Emma Seligman’s directorial debut, Shiva Baby, now hits our screens.
College senior Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who we first see having sex with her “sugar daddy”, Max (Danny Deferrari), has a few hours to prepare before going to a shiva with her parents, Joel and Debbie (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper). Her family, especially her mother, instructs her on countering questions regarding her disorganised life. Her mother warns her about the “funny business” Danielle has with her high school friend Maya (Molly Gordon).
Shiva Baby takes place in a claustrophobic house that is hosting the shiva. Members of the extended Jewish community and family members compare Danielle to Maya, who is heading to law school soon, and whom the neighbours cherish. As the day keeps getting worse and more stressful, one unexpected guest arrives, and it staggers Danielle. As judgy conversations, stressful events, and new details start piling up, this shiva is now turning into a hellish nightmare for Danielle.
One thing that may attach audiences to this film is its way of being relatable. It shows the stress, anxieties, and horrors of what many people hate about family gatherings, especially for a more confined person who doesn’t know what to do with their life after graduation. Family gatherings can be tough depending on the family, but there will always be those family members who ask you about your life and what you hope to do with it, and because you are too stressed, you don’t know how to respond. Even if you answer with passion, there will be some conjecture towards it.
It is a comedy; Shiva Baby is genuinely hilarious, but the film’s atmosphere plays like a real horror chamber piece. It is anxiety-inducing yet funny and relatable—the tension increases within every scene. The shiva keeps getting more crowded by the minute, and people keep asking Danielle about her future, judging and comparing her to more successful friends/relatives to the point of breaking. It makes the audience feel the main character’s stress and anxiety throughout the entire film.
The film’s ensemble cast is simply great. All the castmembers chew their scenes up. From Molly Gordon (who worked previously on Olivia Wilde’s hilarious film Booksmart) to Glee star Dianna Agron. But the best supporting act in this film comes from Polly Draper, who has some of the funniest lines: “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps… and not in a good way.”
Although the supporting acts are great, it is Rachel Sennott who steals the show. A grounded, approachable, and loud performance. She has excellent line delivery with slick comedic timing, embracing the role astonishingly. Her character is flawed but is sympathetic. The film strives never to see her as a victim, nor her sex work portrayed as sinful, unlike most films that deal with circumstances like these.
Accompanied by a great score from Ariel Marx that feels like it came from a thriller flick, Shiva Baby keeps the pressure high while making you laugh and worry for Danielle. It features sharp writing and direction by Emma Seligman, not feeling like it was her directorial debut feature. Shiva Baby starts fast and runs fast but uses its short 77-minute runtime to its full potential, with the final product being a suspenseful yet cackling film that delivers satisfying insight.
Kim (Dianna Agron) is referred to as a shiksa multiple times. Shiksa meaning non-jewish woman, though Dianna Agron is Jewish in real life.