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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Shiva Baby

Sharp, relatable and also filled with cringe-inducingly awkward moments, this impressive debut feature spends a day at a shiva with a college senior.
By Sarah Ward
August 05, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
August 05, 2021
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"What are you up to?". It's a familiar question and, when asked by a friend, it's a considerate and good-natured query that shows their genuine interest. But when it's posed by the wrong person, it comes loaded with expectations and inherent judgement — like the type you might find at a gathering of family members and life-long family pals who've turned their gaze in your direction because you're at the age where interrogating every inch of your existence has become their preferred form of sport. In Shiva Baby, this question comes in multiple ways and is asked multiple times. Attending a shiva, the wake-like mourning ritual observed in the Jewish faith, college senior Danielle (Rachel Sennott, Call Your Mother) is on the receiving end of this barrage. Stuck in a house full of enquiring minds, she feels every needling probe thrust her way by relatives and friends of relatives, all asking about her life, future, job, studies and romantic status, and even her weight. She's trapped in an everyday, immensely relatable situation, of course, but one that's never anything other than awkward — and first-time filmmaker Emma Seligman ensures that her audience feels every second of Danielle's discomfort. 

Danielle doesn't quite know how to answer the onslaught, partly because she doesn't want to and feels as if she shouldn't have to. She's right, obviously. Hours earlier — with the film's blackly comic dramas occurring over a single day — she was happily astride the older, richer Max (Danny Deferrari, Private Life) in a lavish Manhattan apartment. That's how Shiva Baby opens, and he gifts her an expensive bangle afterwards, as well as cash as payment. To her parents and relatives, she refers to her job as "babysitting". The film never intimates that Danielle is ashamed of doing sex work, and refreshingly so, but it gives the impression that she'd prefer not to have a conversation about it with all the busybodies already poking their noses in her direction. Accordingly, she doesn't explain that she missed the funeral because she was having sex. When she arrives at the shiva with her parents Debbie (Polly Draper, Billions) and Joel (Fred Melamed, WandaVision), she has to ask which distant relative died more than once. A recent NYU graduate in her mid-20s, Seligman writes and stages this whole scenario with the specificity of someone who knows the claustrophobia, tension, horrors and social distress these gatherings can inspire, and the cringing that happens deep inside every time. She also knows that there's never just one complication, or even just a couple.

As Danielle navigates all that quizzing, she's also confronted with two people she'd prefer not to see: Max, who has his wife Kim (Dianna Agron, Glee) and their baby daughter in tow; and Maya (Molly Gordon, The Broken Hearts Gallery), her ex-girlfriend from high school who's now bound for law school. According to the Greek chorus-esque throng of voices always nattering throughout the event, Maya has done better for herself out of the two. Again, that's the level of gossiping and judgement that surrounds both women. Seligman is careful not to buff down Danielle's edges or flaws, though. This isn't a tale about a preposterously perfect millennial forced to deal with grating but societally sanctioned scrutiny, but rather a movie about someone complex, full of contradictions, sometimes smart and savvy, sometimes immature and reckless, and always just as easy to empathise with as wince at. It charts how she struggles through everyday woes that we all have, but in a microcosm of a situation. Shiva Baby is an exceptionally written film, and an astutely penned one, as proves evident in every word Danielle utters and every sentence directed her way. That's also apparent in the reality that everything around Danielle just keeps escalating in an instantly recognisable fashion. We've all been there, and more than once, even though most of us haven't stood in these exact shoes.

Seligman isn't the first filmmaker to spin a cinematic tale that's exactingly, intimately specific, and also proves universal again and again. She taps into that juxtaposition masterfully, however — just as that very combination made Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird the heartfelt and honest movie it was, and this year's Oscar contender Minari by writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, too. Shiva Baby feels authentic and lived-in, which is what nudges everyone watching to feel as if they've lived it as well, and to see clear parallels with their own experiences. The roving and floating camerawork, bobbing in and around the assembled crowd all cramped within one ordinary house, helps considerably. It aims to get viewers seeing the chaos from Danielle's perspective, and achieves that goal with every shot. The fact that the score ramps up the unease, its strings rattling nerves just as effectively as every incident and altercation at the shiva, is one of Seligman's other immersive and well-executed flourishes.

From the way that she radiates both stress and aimlessness in her posture, to her deadpan facial expressions, Sennott's layered performance is unsurprisingly crucial, too. Danielle is such a ball of jostling traits that even the slightest tilt in a direction other than the multitudes seen here could've upset Shiva Baby's entire mood and impact. Also outstanding is Gordon, who has stolen scenes in Booksmart and Good Boys in the past, and makes this much more of a two-hander than it might've played otherwise. Shiva Baby is a comedy, and plenty of that humour comes from how Sennott and Gordon weather a mundane but also gut-wrenchingly painful social situation with the full knowledge that their characters can only hope to simply get through it. This is a movie that lives and breathes the idea that sometimes laughter is the only option, in fact. It's anxious and nerve-wracking, and also witty and entertaining — and it leaves no doubt that Seligman, Sennott and Gordon all have big futures. They'd still all likely cringe if you asked them "what are you up to?", though.

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