Director: Emma Seligman
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron
Language: English, occasional Yiddish
Duration: 78 minutes
‘Shiva Baby’ follows a day in the life of Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young Jewish college student who is disorganised in life and career. When aunties ask her what she’s been studying, her answer is vague and confusing, even to herself. Film? Media? Gender studies? Something along the lines of that. Danielle is in an arrangement as a sugar baby to her client Max (Danny Deferrari), a significantly older man who financially keeps her afloat while under the impression that she is a law student (she lied to him, she’s been spending his money on knick-knacks). Neither her parents nor her friends know of this arrangement that involves amorous liaisons. And Dani tries to make sure it remains that way. But things get dangerously chaotic when the dishevelled young woman attends a shiva event. It is part of the Jewish mourning period that occurs right after a funeral, and it is of an old relative whom Dani doesn’t know (before entering the house where the shiva is taking place, Danielle asks her mother, “Wait, who died?”). Danielle barely knows anybody inside this house and awkwardly sticks out. She notices her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), too, is at this event and the two still have bones to pick. And then, the unthinkable happens. Dani spots her sugar daddy Max across the room. Not only is he a guest at the shiva but he also knows her parents (played by Fred Melamed and Polly Draper).
‘Shiva Baby’ is the directorial debut of young New York-based director Emma Seligman. The dark comedy was one of the boldest and most self-assured debuts last year when it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and then the Toronto International Film Festival. It began to stream on the film site Mubi in April this year, and then on HBO Max in June.
The hand-held cameras effectively make the scenes in ‘Shiva Baby’ nerve-wracking and the close-ups render them claustrophobic. The dark interiors of the house where much of this film was shot were said to be chosen for their yellowish glow which had reminded Seligman of the classic Jewish-themed film ‘Yentl’ and its golden lighting. And so, with the cinematography and the set choice, we are expertly dropped into the mind of Danielle whose past mistakes and insecurities which are common to a 20-something-year-old are beginning to collide with each other. Each new room she wanders into and each character she is introduced to (be it Max’s wife, a baby, a nosy aunty) pushes the script and characters into even more darkly hilarious, painful or uncomfortable (usually all of the above) situations. Every viewer who has undergone a painful interaction, stinging jealousy or public humiliation will find themselves gritting their teeth or looking away with embarrassment more than once while watching this wicked farce.
Not enough can be said about how amazing the young director treads the fine line between comedy and horror. It is not supernatural horror, but a social and psychological horror about a young woman who is only beginning to learn adulting and is (rightfully) afraid and uncertain of the scary world of grown-ups. The topic of sugar baby-sugar daddy relationships comes up at one point, and while we are made perfectly aware of how it has affected our heroine’s health, one would have liked to hear more about it from her own words.
Regardless, ‘Shiva Baby’ is perhaps the funniest ‘funeral themed’ comedy to grace the screens since 2007’s ‘Death At A Funeral’ (directed by Frank Oz). It looks professionally and confidently done for a debut feature film by a young filmmaker. And for such a low budget and limited location, ‘Shiva Baby’ succeeds as an independent movie with flying colours, which only goes to show how supremely talented and promising Emma Seligman is.
‘Shiva Baby’ is now streaming on HBO Max and Mubi.
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