Emma Seligman (director)
09 June 2021 (released)
31 May 2021
Shiva Baby is a darkly comic, coming-of-age story about a young woman navigating the rocky road between youth to adulthood and is an impressive debut feature from writer-director, Emma Seligman.
Set over the course of a single day, the action takes place at a shiva, a traditional Jewish ritual of friends and family coming together after a funeral. Danielle, played by actor-comedian, Rachel Sennott, is a student on the cusp of graduation who is beset by insecurities and fears about the future. After missing the funeral service, she arrives at the gathering, flustered and uncertain about why she is even there. She is the archetypal, fish out of water, unable to confidently bat away the barrage of personal questions and judgemental comments from friends and relatives. But the drama begins proper when she sees that her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), is one of the mourners and shortly afterwards she clocks the unexpected arrival of Max (Danny Deferrari) her secret ‘sugar daddy’ with a very attractive wife and a baby in tow, whose existence Danielle was previously unaware.
Sexuality, identity and burgeoning independence from the parental support system, all happily co-exist and interconnect. Gender roles and expectations are examined and then torn apart. Just as Toto pulls back the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, the filmmakers show how easily youthful projections of perfection can be put onto others, that subsequently prove to be false or exaggerated.
Interestingly, power play is fluid and moves back and forth between the main characters throughout the day. In one scene we see Danielle growing in confidence, knowing she has the power to ruin Max, but then power shifts back to Max when he rejects her sexual advances, reducing Danielle to a childlike figure once more. Seligman does a good job at layering the narrative by making her protagonist manage several complicated relationships within the same house and because of this it feels authentic when she begins to unravel under the pressure and her secret starts to show itself to others.
Rachel Sennott is terrific as a young woman at odds with the world, and Danny Deferrari is equally well-cast as the flawed Max. The dialogue between the two is often minimalistic, relying instead on non-verbal cues and reactions to move the action forward. Both of their performances are agreeably understated, so when the tension is ratcheted up several notches, we still believe in their characters and the world they inhabit on screen.
The mother-daughter dynamic is rich territory and there are some lovely moments between Danielle and her mother, Debbie (Polly Draper). Witnessing Debbie’s verbal dominance is entertaining enough, but what feels fresher is the physicality she deploys to grab her daughter’s attention, which is reminiscent of a mother dealing with an obstinate, misbehaving toddler. This hands-on, pushing-dragging interplay, within the boundary of what is essentially a caring relationship, isn’t often visible on screen and rarely implied, and adds depth and believability to the relationship, and is further evidence of the lack of agency Sennott’s character has in this environment.
Less engaging is the running gag about food; either you are too skinny, a slur directed at young women, or too fat, like Joel, Danielle’s father, who plays up to the screen stereotype of someone who enjoys food. Whilst we may recognise these comments and jokes and accept their realism in the context of large family gatherings, the constant repetition of them here felt overplayed, and as the day wears on they start to sound like generational-signalling tropes.
Maria Rusche’s camerawork is energetic and binds the audience to Danielle and irrespective of her erratic behaviours, we remain sympathetic to her plight, even if it is self-inflicted. A variety of angles and sequences are cut together to deliver a pace and tempo that means we don’t tire of the single location setting. One enjoyable visual involves Debbie gossiping feverishly with a friend directly in front of her daughter. The friends are in focus and in close-up, with a blurred, virtually invisible Danielle pinned to the background - a prisoner in someone else’s conversation. Other times, the lens literally chases the increasingly distressed protagonist into other rooms, and into other potentially humiliating encounters. A choppy and discordant music score does a good job at teasing the viewer into anticipating a suspenseful or comedic moment ahead.
The pressure to have your identity and life-purpose nailed-down by your early twenties, weighs heavy in the air, and brings to mind, Lena Dunham’s, Girls, which also illuminated some of the bleaker elements of early adulthood through humour and drama. Shiva Baby has already done well on the festival circuit, and rightly so, it is a savvy first feature that captures well the messy and exciting business of growing up – warts and all.
In cinemas for one night only on 9th June. Available on MUBI from 11th June 2021.