Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby, chronicles the day of a nettlesome Shiva family gathering with prudent humor, occasionally fragile drama and plenty of anxiety. At least once in our lifetimes, we’ve all experienced some type of irritating family gathering where we dread having encounters with certain people with family, friends, and acquaintances. Adapted from her own short film of the same title, Seligman’s Shiva Baby is a dizzying and anxiety-inducing romp, that eavesdrops us into the life of a young New Yorker female where her life begins to fall apart within hours.
Also, reprising the role of Danielle is lead actress Rachel Sennett, she plays a college student who is still attempting in finding her field of study–in which it changes depending who she is talking to-Danielle is a very nervous and afloat individuals, who is an online prostitutes who also has sugar daddies that gives her money that she doesn’t seem to need. The opening of the film we see Danielle finishing having sex with Max (Danny Defarrari), who gives her money after their sexual encounter. Max appears to be really into her as she feels distant, or perhaps it’s just an act? Danielle parts ways with Max as she claims she has a business meeting later on and Max states he likes supporting college girls to reach their careers.
Chronicling the events in the course of one day, the film cuts right into a Shiva in Brooklyn, where family and friends gather together to mourn the death of a close one. Danielle’s parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), who have been supporting her while she is in grad school, are hoping to introduce her around in hopes she can gain opportunities with an internship and maybe finding a potential boyfriend. Meanwhile, little do her parents know that her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is also at the Shiva; and coincidently Max ends up showing up, along with his wife Kim (Dianna Agron), in which he never brought her up before to Danielle, along with his infant daughter.
We have watched this comedy of errors and identity before–and it’s easy to sense this is a short film that is drawn-on into a feature film terrain of 77 mins–but there are a lot of hilarious moments and even some resonant ones that make it feel refreshing and brutally honest. While the film does hit some of the notes, the film reaches a level of authenticity and suffocating tension where you never know where things are going to go next.
Throughout the film you feel Danielle’s awkwardness, tensions, and claustrophobia. The film captures the cruelty of people and their words as they are always making passive-aggressive comments about her career, her weight, and education status. Things get even worse once the truth comes out that she is a grad-student of gender studies over business and law studies that she told Max that her major was in. As tensions escalate, Seligman along with cinematographer Maria Rusche capture her psychology with certain lenses and atmosphere with the use of darker colors in the house that only elevates Danielle’s humiliations. We feel the panic, the nervous breakdowns, and panic eating that echoes some of the anxiety felt in the Safdie Bros. 2019 masterpiece Uncut Gems and even P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.
All around Seligman has crafted a sharply written, uproariously funny, and restlessly entertaining film about second hand embarrassment. It’s not all panic though, there are moments where we feel some hope and relief, especially when there is some hope that Danielle and Maya go outside the house as they shed some light on making some amends. The casting is also pitch-perfect here, Polly Draper is hysterical as the observant and worried mother, and Fred Melamed always brings that droll sense of humor to his characters that he does so well. Danielle’s parents come off very overbearing, but they are also good-natured and eventually encouraging.
All around, Shiva Baby could have dived a little deeper with Danielle’s psychology and yearnings, but the films effectiveness is capturing these anxieties in such a low-key manner. Some viewers may find Danielle to be an unsympathetic character in which her dishonesty and cover-ups can in fact test your patients. However, there is no denying she is still engaging enough as you can’t wait to see how she gets out of these situations that she boxes herself in. While a deeply flawed character, there is no denying that there is empathy and indefensible traits to behold.
Rachel Sennett as Danielle, is certainly the black sheep of the family, and she is oddly likeable in the film. What could have felt sitcomish, comes off more darkly comedic and wittier than standard TV fare. Laughter and some poignancy are to be found in this debut film that also generates some dark humor and uncomfortable belly laughs.