Review: A Suffocating, Chaotic, Awkward and Hilarious Shiva Baby Marks a New Filmmaker’s Impressive Debut

An expansion on the short film of the same name she made in 2018, Emma Seligman’s feature film debut, Shiva Baby, marks an exciting and promising (not to mention hilarious) entry into the growing works of a new generation of filmmakers. For these up-and-comers (Seligman is in her mid-20s), their stories exist in a world where fluidity of identity, sexuality and preference isn’t just tolerated or accepted but practically expected; where the overwhelming social media content and connectivity tends to make one feel all the more isolated; and where there’s immeasurable pressure to have it all figured out by far too young an age. In Shiva Baby, Seligman channels all that and more into a symphony of anxiety, shame, confusion and chaos with a Jewish wake (the shiva) as its surprisingly entertaining backdrop.

Shiva Baby

Image courtesy of Utopia Films

Just one brief prologue scene takes place somewhere other than the small suburban New York home where the film is mainly set, and it introduces us to Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college senior mid-encounter with a man who is apparently a client of hers, as the wad of cash he hands her afterwards would indicate. He’s sweet enough, given the circumstances; older than her but not so much that it’s gross. He kisses her goodbye as she puts her low-cut tank top back on, saying something about “this brunch thing” thing she has to get to. And in a blink, we’re with a completely different Danielle, one much more modestly dressed, her hair pulled back and her defenses up as she approaches the home and her parents just arriving outside. She’s headed into battle, albeit one she knows well: the constant, if well-meaning, badgering by her mom (Polly Draper) and dad (Fred Melamed); having to answer the same mundane questions about her life and her future plans ad nauseam; and the potential of running into friends or distant relatives she should remember but absolutely does not (or doesn’t want to).

Very quickly, Danielle’s not great day gets worse when who should show up at the shiva her mother asked her to attend (she isn’t even entirely sure who died?) but the guy she was, ahem, servicing that very morning. He’s Max (Danny Deferrari), he happens to be a past employee of Danielle’s dad and—wait for it—his wife and baby daughter are on their way to the brunch, too. Suffice it to say Danielle did not know about this side of Max’s life during their many rendezvous, and on top of everything else coming at her from all sides (I haven’t even mentioned the childhood friend also in attendance, Maya (Molly Gordon), who is very much more than just a friend), now she has to navigate this new development, too. Inevitably Danielle’s dad, Joel, introduces her to Max as though they’ve never met; Seligman’s top-notch cast nails the awkward so precisely it’s painful, in that hurts-so-good way that only makes you want more. The film continues this way, relishing in putting Danielle in the most uncomfortable moments possible, her frenzied perspective compelling the audience to sit up and pay attention to what she’ll have to deal with next. The pestering distant relatives taking liberties with personal space? Check. Losing her phone, the one she uses to secretly make her “arrangements,” and praying it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands? Check. Having to act like the babysitter is very much is not when Max’s wife Kim (Dianna Agron), asks her to hold the baby? A very, very uncomfortable check.

Shiva Baby is deeply, unapologetically culturally Jewish, simultaneously embracing and roasting the traditions, personalities, humor and mannerisms of that lived experience, from the massive spread of bagels, lox, rugelach (careful how you pronounce that!) and more to a nearly oppressive version of hospitality that probably does far more damage than good to the relationships swirling around Danielle. It’s all kicked up a notch, to be sure, but to paraphrase the adage, it’s funny to whatever degree because, also to some degree, it’s true. Even the goyim among us (myself included) can appreciate the suffocating meddling of well-meaning relatives, the free fall of despair when new, heartbreaking information is uncovered, and the inevitable if unexpected breaking point when it all becomes too much. Sonnett carries it all with apparent and impressive ease, effortlessly shifting between Danielle’s many iterations—who her parents think she is, who Max thinks she is, who she really is—sometimes in the same scene or moment.

Capsule dramas (dramedies?) like Shiva Baby don’t need some grand resolution to wind down their narratives; as the shiva brunch ends, so does the film, everyone packing up and filing out, figuring out how to get back to the city from the far-flung burbs. By this point, we know these colorful characters well and, to Seligman’s true credit, nearly want to follow them back to their post-brunch lives, too. But this is the slice of Danielle’s life we get, and it’s a doozie. As she piles into her parents’ van (which itself is one last moment in a film filled with them), nothing is necessarily resolved for this lost Gen Z soul. She’s still got finals to get through, not to mention life after college to figure out. But for her, it’s not just “life” as her parents would define it (get a good job, fall in love with a nice man, etc.). It’s her own version of it, defined on her terms: who she chooses to love (if anyone!), the lens through which she lives her values, the extent to which she brings her background and baggage to all of it. Not a single moment in Shiva Baby is wasted in getting us closer to understanding Danielle at this particular moment in her life, and though by the end we can’t be sure how she chooses to move forward, we can be sure that she absolutely will.

Shiva Baby is now playing in select theaters and via virtual cinema, including through the Siskel Film Center and Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental to view from home supports the cinema.

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