By Nadia Dalimonte
Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby (2020)
Emma Seligman’s stunning debut feature Shiva Baby is a funny, invigorating, fully realized pressure cooker. Hot off the heels of its TIFF 2020 premiere and Utopia Media gaining worldwide rights, this film is one to watch. Seligman adapted Shiva Baby from a short film she made as an NYU student. The story follows a young woman named Danielle (Rachel Sennott) who attends a shiva - a mourning tradition in the Jewish community - where she unexpectedly encounters her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and an older man named Max (Danny Deferrari) who she’s secretly been seeing for money. Danielle’s hovering parents are also present, whisking her to meet so-and-so who can help her with such-and-such.
The story takes place in one day, in real time, as Danielle swerves from one interrogative family encounter to another while trying to keep her feelings in check. She’s anxious about her future. She’s without a solid career path, job, or boyfriend…at a family gathering, where an endless line of questioning follows her nonstop. With no immediate escape, emotions build and Danielle’s feverish anxiety rises…
This film has a fantastic balance of tone. Seligman blends comedy with drama and hints of horror, while exploring a woman coming-of-age, self-worth, anxiety, interfering family dynamics, conflicting pressures, power shifts in relationships, and traditions. Seligman depicts so many themes funneled into a day in the life. Everything feels so grounded and realistic. The actors are extraordinary. Rachel Sennott is so completely in tune with the tone and her character; her performance is magnificent. The camerawork compliments her strongly as well, zooming in closer and closer the more anxiety-inducing the story becomes. Sennott is also surrounded by a pitch perfect ensemble cast, and everyone plays off one another so well. Polly Draper and Fred Melamed (who play Danielle’s parents) shine bright, as do Molly Gordon (Maya) and Dianna Agron (who plays Max’s wife). The characterization is outstanding. The screenplay is quick witted. 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.
There is an instantly relatable aspect in watching the ways in which the family members sink their teeth into a young woman’s future prospects and who she should become in their world. Seligman infuses cool inspiration from the horror genre, with the use of jump scares and a horror score that is used throughout. The horror elements emphasize the panic swirling in Danielle’s mind as pressures from her family close in on her in a very frenetic way. There are some brilliant pressure cooker moments, with one particularly feverish scene in the final act that feels like being inside Danielle’s racing heartbeat. Even the camerawork turns red.
Emma Seligman has a brilliant and deeply resonating debut feature under her belt. Shiva Baby fires on all cylinders and leaves a lot of anticipation for what Seligman does next.