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► Shiva Baby is in UK cinemas for one day only on 9 June and streaming on Mubi from 11 June.
This slick, sly comedy of New York Jewish manners rests on a simple, claustrophobic premise: what if your whole precarious life, your carefully constructed, fatally fragile persona, fell publicly to pieces amid the ritual and solemnity of a stranger’s funeral?
This is the predicament of a young woman, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who has chosen to rebel against her wealthy and respectable parents by pursuing a parallel, secret life as a sex worker. Alongside some casual escorting, she has cultivated a long-term transactional relationship with Max (Danny Deferrari), who gives her cash and expensive presents in return for sex and happily accepts her lie that he is helping to pay her way through a non-existent law-school degree. The film opens with her hurried departure from his apartment: she doesn’t mention being late for a funeral; then again, nor does he. So when they bump into each other over the shiva buffet and discover they are part of the same extended community, they both know they’re in trouble – and that’s even before Max’s beautiful blonde wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and mewling baby arrive on the scene.
Writer-director Emma Seligman’s decision to let the ensuing disaster unspool entirely within the confines of the shiva is more than a clever nod to the classical unities of time and place: it’s a brilliant device for weaving together all the emotional and narrative tensions in play, and then winding each wire to an almost unbearable breaking-point.
The house where the shiva takes place is packed with gossipy, well-meaning adults who all want to know Danielle’s business – including her parents (beautifully played by Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), who are as baffled by her recent weight loss as by her apparent lack of career goals, not to mention her mysterious failure to find a boyfriend. Also in evidence, not unconnectedly, is Danielle’s ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), who really is going to law school and in many ways seems to have the life Danielle ought to want. But what Maya really wants is Danielle, or at least an explanation of why their relationship suddenly fizzled out.
Wanting and not wanting the various options available to a woman in Danielle’s position is one of the film’s key themes. On the one hand there’s the mythical gilded-youth option (as one elderly relative puts it, “You just study, and don’t eat, and go out with your beautiful friends, is that your life? Lucky you!”). And then there’s the having-it-all/hating-it-all adult option represented by the serenely miserable Kim, who runs three businesses, can’t find a babysitter, and has unwittingly been bankrolling her husband’s infidelity.
The ‘baby’ of the film’s title is literalised by the incessantly shrieking kid who acts as a klaxon and a flashing neon sign pointing to Max’s moral failure; the line “Who brings a baby to a shiva?” becomes an ironic refrain. But the real baby is Danielle herself: a grown woman who can’t resist infantilisation, as Max’s sugar baby or as the baby of her extended family, perpetually available to be prodded, patted, mocked and scolded by everyone in this airless space – a house increasingly flooded with harsh judgement, with sarcasm where the oxygen used to be.
The film’s farcical trappings – coincidental meetings, desperate lies, a mislaid phone – drive the comedy, ensuring that the plot never gives Danielle (or us) a moment’s rest. But beneath the frantic surface, the emotional stakes could not be higher. It’s a testament to Sennott’s subtle, sympathetic performance that Danielle’s unerring instinct for clumsy self-sabotage steadily amasses the heft of tragedy.
In the end, the shiva setting is more than just an occasion for compressed social networks and intergenerational friction. If the deceased woman herself barely makes a mark on proceedings, we are nevertheless reminded regularly that death is in the room: candles must be lit, Kaddish said, respect shown. Danielle may resist her parents’ intrusions and assumptions – and, implicitly, the traditional Jewish identity around which they coalesce – but when, at a crucial moment, she accidentally knocks a pile of Torahs to the floor, the sudden, shocked silence slices right through the pettiness of her adolescent crisis and opens up the heart of the matter.
As writer, Seligman studs her intricately constructed screenplay with hilarious absurdity and scalpel-sharp one-liners; as director, she frames the mayhem expertly, with one eye always on the bigger picture. The result is an exhilarating and compassionate film about love, death, loneliness – and the life-affirming importance of dessert.
“I take pride in my millennial audience”: Emma Seligman on Shiva Baby and sugar daddies
Emma Seligman’s painfully tense debut watches on as a college student finds herself trapped by prying family and friends at a wake. The director speaks about millennial-boomer conflicts, being influenced by Cassavetes, and only turning to her Jewish comedic Rolodex selectively.
By Sophie Monks Kaufman
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy