US/Canada (2020) Dir. Emma Seligman
We all have our secrets and having them come out is our biggest fear. However, could there be a worst time for them to come out then at a funeral? And a Jewish one at that? Many of us won’t ever get to find out, others might not be so lucky…
Jewish college girl Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is drifting through life with no plans except for acting, supported by her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari). After sleeping together, Danielle leaves Max to join her parents Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper) for a shiva (a mourning observance gathering). Among the other attendees is Danielle’s ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) who Danielle tries and fails to avoid.
Yet another surprise awaits Danielle, as Max shows up at the shiva as a former colleague of Joel’s, and the two pretend not to know each other. To make matters worse, Max’s non-Jewish wife Kim (Dianna Agron) arrives with their baby daughter. With Kim being a highflying businesswoman, Joel and Debbie try network a job for Danielle. Then Kim notices Danielle has the same expensive bracelet she does.
Knowing first time director Emma Seligman is a bisexual Jew might incur inference that Shiva Baby is autobiographical in some way. Not that it has to be, but there is a sense much of the angst experienced by Danielle has been lived by someone before. Certainly, with the Jewish community being strict and self-contained, there is a chance the cultural aspect of the story is rooted in reality but the themes are universal.
An expanded version of an experimental short film Seligman made in film school, one might view this as a Jewish take at a young woman’s sexual identity and validation in a modern world. It cannot be denied this adds a unique flavour to the proceedings, even an eye opening one for those of us only familiar with stereotyped presentations of Jewish culture.
Despite being seemingly young, Seligman is remarkably assured behind the lens and in her direction, whilst the script is a mix of recognisable Jewish traits and modern youth attitudes. There are hardly any “Oy veys” or Jackie Mason style quips, whilst the Danielle and Maya are very much girls of today, with their “like, whatever” catty comebacks and needless profanity betwixt the Sapphic tension they fight to suppress.
The film opens with the closing moments of Danielle and Max’s coital session, ending with money exchanging hands to imply Danielle is something he isn’t. In the next shot, she is a dressed in her mourning outfit and meeting her nervy parents, both aware there will be many questions why Danielle isn’t married, has no job, etc. “What’s my soundbite again?” Danielle asks, needing to be in sync with this deflective ruse.
Maya’s arrival – oddly the only other young person at the shiva bar a few toddlers – is met with a plea from Joel for no trouble from Danielle. A tense but polite conversation informs us they were not just ex-friends but lovers too – or “experimenting” as Debbie put it. Maya’s mother Katherine (Glynis Bell) appears to be from the same open-minded mould as Debbie, secretly of course.
In demonstrating how relatable this scenario is, I defy anyone not to have experienced as a child the same never-ending merry go round of relatives and acquaintances asking the same fatuous questions, met with either feigned interest or unsolicited opinion or advice. Danielle not only has to spin a few white lies, but also has the added pressure of knowing a ticking time bomb could go off when Max arrives. Let’s hope she doesn’t do anything stupid.
Having cut her leg, Danielle retreats to the bathroom to clean up where she decides to take a topless selfie for Max and send it to his phone. Not only does she leave her phone behind but is also unaware of Kim’s arrival until she comes out. And if their meeting wasn’t awkward enough, the revelation Kim is the breadwinner and therefore unwittingly funding Max’s affair with Danielle is a second time bomb threatening to detonate.
Seligman relies on a handheld camera close up in Danielle’s face to create the dread and nervous anticipation of her complex life collapsing in around her. Be it the search for her phone or the need to get out of the room and away from aging old gossips commenting on her weight (or lack therefore), the desperation and panic is conveyed with the same intensity of a tightly wound action drama or prickly horror film.
Not something you would expect from a film designed to challenge Jewish conservatism but Seligman already sets out her stall as someone with the ideas to shake up convention and pull it off with aplomb. The skill is in how none of this feels abstract or incongruous, instead it is natural progression within the narrative given the many combustible elements present; it is almost farcical without the slapstick comedy but just as excruciating to watch.
Rachel Sennott, who starred in the original short, carries the film confidently and with the same disarming maturity as Seligman displays as writer and director. Interestingly, she makes Danielle only partially likeable but not hateable; this honest depiction paints her as a victim of her world more than her bad decisions. Molly Gordon as Martha comes across as a petty ex, whilst Polly Draper is great as febrile mum Debbie.
Unfortunately, as impressed as I was by the incredibly high standard of the writing and direction from Seligman for a debuting filmmaker, I wasn’t blown away by Shiva Baby. Maybe I missed some jokes – the final scene of cramming eight people and a baby into one car was fun – or some of the characters put me off, I felt I wanted to like it more.
But based on this, Seligman is definitely one to watch for the future, as is Sennott, let’s hope her vision isn’t compromised by outside interference.