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SHIVA BABY (2020) review

March 31, 2021


written by: Emma Seligman
produced by: Kieran Altmann, Katie Schiller & Lizzie Shapiro
directed by: Emma Seligman
rated: not rated
runtime: 77 min.
U.S. release date: March 15, 2020 (SXSW) & April 2, 2021 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)


The things you overhear or witness at a funeral service when you try to be a wallflower can often wind up being just as baffling and unexpected as the conversations you inevitably have with other attendees, especially the ones you’d rather not run into anywhere. The surface talk about anyone other than the deceased is understandable as are the obligatory condolences, but those banal questions about whether or not you’re seeing anyone (that is, if you’re single) or what you’re doing for work, can feel as if your own life is slowly draining. These reminders and observations came to mind while watching writer/director Emma Seligman’s relatable and tender comedy “Shiva Baby”, which portrays the claustrophobic awkwardness of attending a social gathering commemorating the recently deceased.

When we first meet Danielle (Rachel Sennott) she is finishing up a quickie with her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferarri), so she can collect her earnings and make it to a shiva. The directionless liberal arts college student meets her neurotic Jewish parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), who arrive outside her aunt Sheila’s suburban New York home in an embarrassing green van. Danielle has to navigate her way through an assortment of estranged relatives and friends, all of whom seem to be working off the same script by commenting on how much weight she’s lost and asking what her post-graduation plans are.



Danielle’s hopes of getting this over with as soon as possible are squashed when she sees her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) arrive with her mother at the same time. Maya interacts with the same people, yet they’re noticeably congratulating her for getting into law school. Things get worse when she sees Max is there as well and is eventually joined by two people Danielle didn’t even know existed, his entrepreneur wife (Dianna Agron) and their crying eighteen-month-old baby, Rose. Danielle is desperate to leave the shiva at every turn, with her anxieties and insecurities flaring up as she’s forced to contend with who she is.

We can all draw from our own experiences at social gatherings involving family members, friends and frenemies, whether they are graduation celebrations, wedding receptions, or funeral repasts. Quite often during “Shiva Baby” what transpires is a reminder that anything can (and often does) happen in close quarters, especially with nosy and paranoid onlookers. Bumping and spilling of drinks is commonplace and handling crying babies adds to the often uncomfortable climate, leaving characters (and viewers) itching to open the door and breathe outdoor air.

Seligman is fortunate to have such a talented cast across the board to propel “Shiva Baby” forward as she arranges them in a natural pace which allows moments of passive-aggressive judgement and glaring scrutiny to grow in an organic manner. Front and center is Sennott, who truly captures our attention as Danielle, exuding a silent frustration and uneasy identity crisis that brims with a simmering paranoia. She’s fantastic to watch in every scene and she offers something different with each actor she engages with. The sparking chemistry between Sennot and Gordon is undeniable and her interaction with Agron’s alpha wife role conveys a palpable awkwardness. Draper and Melamed are outstanding as the two actors who become a constant throughout, offering characters who move beyond Jewish parental stereotypes and standout as fully-realized people while hitting just the right amount of comedy.



“Shiva Baby” is named after the lead character and the crying baby who shows up at the shiva.  Set mainly in one location, the film takes place in real time, optimizing full immersion of Danielle’s experience for the viewer. It’s a wise conceit on the part of Seligman, who makes her confident feature-length debut here expanding off a short of the same name she made for her thesis at New York City Tisch School of the Arts (which she took to SXSW back in 2018). The film was shot on location on the street in Flatbush, Bronx, which winds up becoming another aspect of the story’s relatability.

Seligman’s screenplay feels authentic and there’s no denying that her own bisexual Jewish lens informs a story which has a protagonist with a similar perspective at its core, but at no point does it feel like a straight-up autobiographical account. If anything, it feels like an embellishment of Seligman’s own experiences, which is why the circumstances and atmosphere feel so real. Of course, much of Danielle’s anxiety and feelings of entrapment are emphasized by cinematographer Maria Rusche’s tight shots (half of the film was shot handheld lending itself effortlessly to that up-close feel) and quick cuts from editor Hanna A. Park. Adding to the internal pressure expressed by Sennott is the string-plucking score from composer Ariel Marx, which teeters between horror and comedy genres while never drawing too much attention to itself.

Seligman explores Danielle’s improvisation of lies, as she does her best to survive the event by pushing herself as a young woman with prospects, only to be hammered back down to size by her oversharing parents. Maya probably knows Danielle in the truest sense, but her presence jeopardizes what she’s trying to protect. Both Danielle and Max are perhaps equally thrown off by their presense at the shiva, considering what they have to hide, especially Max as a husband and father. Such secret relationships heighten the anxiety all around, as everyone struggles to maintain a certain persona amid rising agitation.

Although the story transpires in a relatively short time frame, “Shiva Baby” offers a satisfying character arch for Danielle. She hasn’t resolved many of her issues as the film closes, but there is a noted confidence in her compared to where she was when we first met her. Seligman has an impressive grasp on how these characters talk, Jewish culture, and that feeling of how close it is to be on the verge of losing control of the self we  project to the outside world. Without a doubt, she is a filmmaker to take note of and one who will hopefully continue to deliver engaging stories that explore identities and human experience we can all relate to.



RATING: ***1/2



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