Two situations in life will most likely strike fear and panic in an unsuspecting victim. Those are meeting the in-laws and family gatherings. Shiva Baby has both. The film follows college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott), as she attends a family shiva – a Jewish funeral service – with her parents. At the shiva, she is accosted by her relatives, outshined by her secret ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and comes face-to-face with her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari).
Before Shiva Baby took its first steps, it was a short film. Emma Seligman, alumni of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, birthed the concept as a thesis project. With a runtime of around 8 minutes, the short also featured Rachel Sennott in the leading role. While it still holds the essence of the feature at its core, it does not include the added themes of sexuality that the feature-length product explores.
The Canadian film director herself is Jewish and bisexual. She has noted how the most important factor of the film is the sexual themes. It’s present in Danielle’s obvious arrangement as a sugar baby and her relationship with Maya. But there is also the added exploration of how older women express sexual desire and romantic urgency, within their dialogue specifically, throughout the film.
There’s also the added matter that the title is both literal and symbolic. It refers to the actual baby that attends the shiva. It also makes a reference to Danielle as a directionless young woman trying to survive a sea of expectations. There’s also the play on words between “sugar baby” and “shiva baby.”
In terms of Danielle’s reality as a sugar baby, the film plays with this from beginning to end. The lingering question throughout the film is will Danielle’s parents find out about her monetary arrangement? Will the entirety of the shiva attendees find out? The perfect recipe for an anxious viewing.
Shiva Baby itself takes inspiration from numerous projects ranging from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to more contemporary features such as Lady Bird and Uncut Gems. Many can compare it as well to The Farewell, finding a similar path between its own Billi and Danielle. It’s a testament to its out-of-the-box style and execution. Seligman’s masterpiece cannot be contained within a genre.
It perfectly captures the desperation, loneliness, and belonging throughout every beating second. It’s in the words spoken and those left unsaid, the longing stares as well as the afflicting ones, and the awkward movements intermingled with the precise ones. It is claustrophobic visually as much as it is emotionally. Ariel Marx contributes to this through the haunting score. It is reminiscent of a horror flick which goes to show that fear and terror are sensory creatures.
However, it does not overshadow the themes of coming of age as well as the sharp and witty comedy Seligman sprinkles in. There is a lot of heart to this film in its center. The pacing flows beautifully like a classic symphony that reaches excruciating highs and heartbreaking lows. In the end, it is an outstanding debut from Seligman. It showcases style, humor, and personality in a cutthroat run of 78 minutes. – Josie Meléndez
Shiva Baby is now available to rent on Video on Demand.
The film stars Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, and Dianna Agron.