What to Watch Verdict
Steeping her feature in Jewish culture, Seligman's impressive first feature is an authentic look at how age and upbringing can lead to competing values. It's a scream for anyone who sees themselves in the ensemble of characters.
🔸Great use of space to create tension without losing itself in architecture.
🔸A lead that oozes relatability.
🔸Feels drawn out even with its tight 78-minute runtime.
If you scored the dance a young woman does as she skips through a house full of her family friends and relatives, you’d end up with the plucky staccato sounds of Shiva Baby. Aptly scored by Ariel Marx, each note of the background hum reflects the toe tapping done by young Jewish women navigating their well-intentioned community. This film feels like a choreographed dance number which perfectly portrays a familiar experience, and while the music often swells, it’s never louder than the things the community members say.
Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is at the expected impasse of her generation. She’s somewhere between college and grad school, trying to conceptualize how to monetize gender studies, has a complicated ex-girlfriend, and is testing the waters with sex work from the position of a feminist power play. But these otherwise typical markers of her age group aren’t generally accepted in her Jewish community where white-collar careers and nuclear families are prized. If the pressure that lands atop her from her supportive (financially and emotionally) parents isn’t enough, Danielle is bombarded at a shiva with hoards of friends and relatives prying to see if she lives up the desired expectations. A shiva is a post-funeral Jewish tradition where a house is turned into a drop-in place of mourning and support meant to comfort the family of a lost loved one. In practice, they’re often homes filled to the brim with people ranging in familiarity who exchange small talk and gossip while snacking on bagel forward catering.
Shiva Baby opens on Danielle performing an orgasm before collecting payment from her self-righteous John, Max (Danny Deferrari). Max hands his young companion a wad of cash while congratulating himself for supporting a woman in the study of law. But Danielle isn’t studying law and Max isn’t supporting women. Danielle hustles out of the bachelor pad and preps herself to meet her parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) to attend the shiva of a woman Danielle can barely name. Such is the intention and the banality of the tradition that Danielle slips easily into the home, braced for small talk and finger sandwiches. Before entering, she rehearses her phony career blurb with her parents who express their intention to assist with helping her find job and romantic connections in-between their bickering about diets and messy cars. Inside, Danielle finds her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) and worse, Max, whom is later accompanied by his wife and new baby. While the women around her laud her figure and drag her into conversations about job prospects, Danielle struggles to keep herself together and not let slip to them how intimately she knows the man with the non-Jewish wife.
Feeling inadequate as against the expectations of the community would be enough to manage, but Danielle is forced to stare down the barrel at Max’s wife, Kim (Dianna Agron). Kim is the woman she could never be, and not just because she isn’t the “girl boss” type. She’s thin, beautiful, successful, and married to a nice Jewish man. She’s a “shiksa princess” and her slick blonde hair and rakish frame prove it. Danielle finds no comfort in knowing Max still came to her when he has a woman like Kim, and she can’t help but feeding on envy and loathing. Danielle, a gender studies major, can only think to tear down the woman she can never be, calling her “basic” and “generic looking,” something that Maya blows off as internalized misogyny. Which it is. But it’s also born of Kim’s ideal being an impossible thing for a Jewish woman to attain. Throughout the anxiety ridden story of Danielle frantically managing her duplicity is the story of a young woman learning to own herself and push back at expectations. She becomes more secure in her passions and love for Maya, screaming it in the face of divergent values.
Expertly creating a maze to navigate, writer/ director, Emma Seligman, has laid down every element of a typical shiva and chucked Danielle right in the middle of it. The dialogue is so consistent and jarring that I looked over my shoulder to try and figure out how Seligman got my life story. Not only is there a natural use of cultural language about bodies, food, careers, and relationships, but there’s the seamless use of phrases like “doesn’t have a pot to piss in,” that flash the face of your textbook Jewish mother. It’s authentic without ever being stereotypical or mean-spirited and showcases the comedy that can spill out from well-intentioned offers of support. The characters are reminiscent of the modern portrayals in works like Broad City and Obvious Child. Seligman’s dialogue is truly cause for ecstatic reactions. My mother popped in and overheard a snippet of the chatter and exclaimed, “What’s this? How can I watch this?!” If the ringing endorsement of my mother howling at Debbie lamenting that Joel brought the van to a shiva isn’t an effective pitch, nothing will be.
Seligman has created an anxious feature that continues the tradition of Uncut Gems in its hilarious portrayal of a frantic day in the life. Steeping her feature in the culture, Seligman never veers from creating an authentic portrayal which is what makes this movie a beautiful reflection for those who see themselves in the ensemble of characters. It somewhat manufactures a climax and draws out its third act, but does so in the service of mirroring that very real intense feeling of “can we just go already?” Shiva Baby is not escapism, but an expertly crafted and honest portrayal of the casual experiences of a young Jewish woman facing the rest of her life while engaging in a tradition involving death.
Lindsay Traves is a Toronto-based writer. After submitting her Bachelor’s thesis, “The Metaphysics of Schwarzenegger Movies,” she decided to focus on writing about her passions; sci-fi, horror, sports, and comic books. You can find her writing on CGMagazine, Pajiba, What to Watch, Grim Magazine, StarTrek.com, and Bloody Disgusting and can follow her work on Twitter and Instagram. You can also check out her podcast, The Pod and The Pendulum, at your usual podcast spots and find The Smash List on YouTube for tech reviews.