Shiva Baby is cinema by way of full-body shudder. Every moment in this movie is either horrendously uncomfortable, darkly amusing, or agonizingly recognizable. Directed and written with sharp specificity by Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby actually ends up being quite relatable even if you’re not Jewish, a Millennial cis woman, or bisexual. So, it joins the ranks of The Big Sick and Crazy Rich Asians as movies that are focused on particular cultural identities, but end up as broadly effective thanks to their thoughtful scripts and strong direction. Shiva Baby film barrels along for its well-paced 77 minutes, careening from one awkward conversation to another, until you’re just as emotionally exhausted—and ultimately fulfilled—as its main character.
Danielle (Rachel Sennott) tip-toes very close to being—in the iconic words of Jean-Ralphio Saperstein—the worst. When Shiva Baby opens, Danielle is riding the clearly older Max (Danny Deferrari) on a couch in a well-manicured Manhattan apartment, calling him “Daddy,” and accepting an expensive gift, a diamond-studded bangle that is the film’s Chekhov’s gun. After they’re done having sex, she nudges him about his support of “female entrepreneurs” until he also fetches a stack of bills to hand her. There is no question that sex work is work, and that sex workers deserve fair compensation. The complicating matter, though, is that Danielle always seems to make the worst decision possible, and that her understanding of free will is practically synonymous with self-destruction.
All of this becomes plain at the shiva Danielle attends with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), for a distant-ish relative. Danielle was too busy having sex with client Max to attend the preceding funeral. So more than once, Danielle will ask her mother in an increasing panic, “Wait, who died?” Equally important is Danielle’s other query: “What’s your soundbite again?” Danielle is about to graduate college with a self-designed major, with no job prospects lined up, and with no interest in grad or law school. Her parents are unaware that she’s been doing sex work. And the shiva they’re walking into is a minefield of questions about her future. If she and her parents have the same story, that united front (that Danielle is “finishing up finals, and has a few interviews”) will help shield her from all the meddling questions about who she’s dating, or why isn’t she dating, or who does she want to date, or what she’s studying, or what she isn’t studying, or what she wants to study, or where she’s working, or why she isn’t working, or where she wants to work. The Jewish community of relatives, friends, acquaintances, and frenemies they’re heading into the shiva to join have known Danielle her whole life, and she’s chafing at all their questions and their expectations.
Like any really good bottle episode of TV, or any solid locked-door mystery, Shiva Baby ratchets up the tension, minute by minute. Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, the headed-for-law-school Maya (Molly Gordon, of Booksmart), is also at the shiva. Both of their mothers blanche when they see the other girl, desperate to deny their daughters’ sexual identities. (Make a drinking game out of every time Debbie says Danielle was just “experimenting”!) But Danielle and Maya barely seem able to stand each other, sizing each other up, lobbing insults, and digging in deep like only two people who grew up together, loved each other, and now might hate each other can. Plus, Maya becomes a bit of an afterthought when Danielle sees another face she didn’t expect: Max.
The cramped house full of people commenting on Danielle’s weight, bemoaning that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, insulting her when she’s barely out of earshot of their conversations, and trying to keep her away from Maya is bad enough. But add Max into the picture, and things get exponentially worse. He’s been lying to her, and she’s been lying to him, Maya, and her parents. Everything that was already simmering doesn’t just boil over once in Shiva Baby. It’s like when you’re doing one of those one-pot pasta things, and you left the pot on a high temperature for too long, and you finally take the lid off and try to stir all the starchy stuff stuck to the bottom of the pot, and there’s so much residual heat that the whole thing just bubbles up and splashes you with burning pasta sauce and gets all over your favorite Super Yaki shirt. Hasn’t this scenario happened to us all? That scenario is Shiva Baby!
If you’re a fan of the thriving-on-discomfort comedy style of TV series like Nathan for You or I Think You Should Leave, or the sometimes-cringeworthy coming-of-age machinations of Lady Bird, you’ll be on the same wavelength of Shiva Baby. Seligman’s script is masterful in building in moments of grim familiarity during scenes where Sennott’s twitchy, abrasive energy is perfectly tuned. Like a true Millennial—and I say this as one who felt very seen by some of Danielle’s choices!—she gets irritated whenever her father describes her major as simply “feminism.” But she won’t entertain anyone’s clarifying questions about it, either. She refuses to admit wrongdoing, digging herself into a deeper trench rather than fess up to an error. Her argument with Maya about whether the name of the deceased woman, whose shiva they’re attending, is Annie or Abby is A+ stuff. After a horrible conversation with Max, she goes to the shiva spread and loads her plate up with food, then puts it all back, then loads it up again, then puts it all back, then loads it up again, and puts it all back, until finally giving up and loading up a bagel with cream cheese and lox and shoving it into her face while her parents schmooze with him.
Some of this is fueled by immaturity, sure, but the identifiable kind. Danielle’s reckless choices aren’t initially made to hurt other people. So much of her defensiveness clearly comes from the desire to be taken seriously by people who are determined to only see her as a child. Sennott nails that duality, playing Danielle as a young woman unsure of how much adulthood she can really take on, but who dives in headfirst anyway. Maria Rusche’s camera floats around the party alongside Danielle as she tries to escape everyone she knows, while Ariel Marx uses a baby’s sobs as a jarring secondary score. “You don’t need to know what you’re doing,” Debbie tries to consolingly say to her daughter. That’s a nice moment—one promptly derailed by Debbie adding, “You can move back in with Daddy and me,” and Danielle’s responding sobs.
The line Shiva Baby walks between gently mocking the terrible situation that Danielle has created for herself and deeply empathizing with her desire to take charge of her own life is its greatest strength. Shaped by Seligman’s exceedingly clever script and Sennott’s smartly self-aware performance, Shiva Baby is a pitch-black comedy that not only lives up to the cheekiness of that bagel-and-cream-cheese-gown poster, but surpasses it.
Shiva Baby is playing in select theaters and is available on demand and for digital rental as of April 2, 2021.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Image sources (in order of posting): BRIGADE, BRIGADE