VOD film review: Shiva Baby
Katie Smith-Wong | On 09, Jun 2021
Director: Emma Seligman
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper
The feature directorial debut of Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is based on Seligman’s 2018 short film of the same name. The film focuses on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young bisexual Jewish woman who has a pretty directionless life. She attends a shiva with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), but has awkward encounters with not only family friends but also her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), and her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon).
From the outset, we can see that Danielle doesn’t want to be at the shiva. Feeling forced to attend, her growing discomfort stems from a blend of embarrassment and the need to hide her personal life – notably, her “sugaring” life – from her talkative parents. Despite being openly bisexual, her abrasive mum and flaky dad do not fully understand their daughter and, worse, fail to support her life choices amid their judgemental friends and relatives. Subsequently, Danielle is at the receiving end of somewhat intrusive and barbed comments about her future, weight and relationships. These slowly chip away at her emotional walls and, as we see the shiva unfold almost in real-time, it becomes a boiling pot of tension.
At the other end of the spectrum, the presence of her ex-girlfriend and sugar daddy worsens the awkwardness. Although she is the only one that truly connects with her, Maya is bitter about the lack of post-break-up communication and doesn’t hesitate to attack Danielle with snide remarks. Meanwhile, Max tries to hide his involvement with Danielle, not to mention some topless selfies, from her parents and his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron). Given that Danielle’s sexuality is the only thing that seems to empower her, it soon becomes apparent that her carefree, modern lifestyle may be a flaw rather than a weapon.
Reprising her role from the short film, Sonnett’s performance as Danielle shows confidence and natural talent in front of the camera. She also shares a great chemistry with Draper and Melamed, who effortlessly combine awkwardness and comedy in their performances as Danielle’s parents. Deferrari and Gordon bring another level of emotional complexity while Agron’s subtle performance as the cold, quietly voiced Kim provides a brilliant foil for the chaotic Danielle.
With the story stepping up from a short to a full-length feature, Seligman’s screenplay plays on Danielle’s growing frustration and embarrassing infantilisation. While Ariel Marx’s horror-inspired instrumental score hints at the shiva’s increasing fragmentation, the endless screaming of a baby and the close-ups of Danielle’s growing anxiety bring a relatable feeling of claustrophobia. As a result, we sit with bated breath on the inevitable explosion of emotion and rebellion, but Seligman ends Shiva Baby on a surprising yet uplifting note, allowing us to revel in the calmness after the storm. With a runtime of only 77 minutes, Shiva Baby is a remarkable debut feature for Seligman that is enhanced by Sonnett’s mesmerising performance.