Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby (2021)
Emma Seligman’s stunning debut feature Shiva Baby is a funny, invigorating, fully realized pressure cooker. Expanding on her short film of the same name, Seligman creates an anxiety-inducing experience in the most compelling of ways. She explores a young woman coming of age while facing family dynamics, traditions, sexuality, post-college pressure, and power shifts in relationships. The story is a day in the life of Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who attends a shiva (a mourning tradition in the Jewish community), where she runs into her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) and her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon). Danielle’s hovering parents are also present, whisking her to meet so-and-so who can help her with such-and-such. Seligman tells an incredibly grounded and authentic story rooted in universal themes that resonate down to the tiniest details. Shiva Baby is a remarkable blend of comedy and drama, with hints of horror that add a layer of tension to the story.
Shiva Baby takes place in one day, in real time, as Danielle swerves from one interrogative family encounter to another inside a crowded house. Her career path is in limbo. She is anxious about her future. She is unemployed and unmarried, at a family gathering, which immediately brings forth a relatable feeling. Figuring out who you are, while presenting another version of yourself to family members who have expectations of who you ought to be, is so easy to identify with as a young woman. There is an instantly relatable aspect in watching family members sink their teeth into a young woman’s future prospects and who she should become in their world. At the heart of this story is a multi-layered protagonist with an array of identities that are at odds with one another. With no escape from an endless line of questioning that follows Danielle nonstop, emotions build and her feverish anxiety rises. The drama and tension are conveyed to perfection by Rachel Sennott. In a brilliant performance so completely in tune with her character, Sennott gives a masterclass on how to embrace complexities, vulnerability, and lean into truthfulness.
Danielle has a fascinating journey throughout the film; the power dynamics shift constantly as she tries to find her footing with certain characters. Maya and Max have a history with Danielle; the former knows her but hasn’t seen her in a long time, and the latter unexpectedly runs into her having just spent the morning with her. Seligman brilliantly maps out how all these characters discover where they stand with one another, and the answers change all the time depending on who has control. Shiva Baby has a fantastic balance of tone channeled through the extraordinary cast Seligman assembled. Sennott is surrounded by a pitch perfect ensemble, and everyone plays off one another so well with compelling chemistry. Polly Draper and Fred Melamed (who play Danielle’s parents) shine bright, as do Dianna Agron (who plays Max’s wife) and total scene-stealer Molly Gordon. The characterization is outstanding, and the quick witted screenplay gives the actors golden material to play with. The sense of humour is a delight, providing constant laughs and lines so great you must keep up because you won’t want to miss them.
Shiva Baby infuses cool inspiration from the horror genre, through the use of playful jump scares and Ariel Marx’s wonderful horror score. These elements emphasize the panic swirling in Danielle’s mind as everyone closes in on her in a frenetic way. The music tracks the tension and anxiety so well, which constantly makes one question if any given moment will be the one where Danielle reveals what she’s been holding in. There are brilliant pressure cooker moments sprinkled throughout, with one particularly feverish scene towards the end that feels like being inside Danielle’s racing heartbeat. Emma Seligman has a deeply resonating and lovable debut feature under her belt. Shiva Baby fires on all cylinders and leaves behind a lot of anticipation for Seligman’s next project.