Shiva Baby: a sugar daddy, an ex-girlfriend, and a wailing baby walk into a wake (2020)

By Tilly Mason and Namrata Menon

Shiva Baby, the caustic debut of writer and director Emma Seligman, is the most aesthetically pleasing fever dream: so well shot you can’t look away. It tells the story of Danielle (played by Rachel Sennott), a recent college grad with no motivation and limited prospects (relatable!), whose afternoon descends into a nightmare that is somehow both anxiety-inducing and mundane. In a single day, she has a series of agonising run-ins with her current sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari), his wife (Dianna Agron) and baby, her successful ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon), and her prying family. That this all takes place while sitting shiva, a Jewish wake, allows the disjuncture between intimate familial practices, religious tradition, the unrestrained liberty of Danielle’s entrepreneurial endeavour (which she crudely tells her parents is a baby-sitting job), and her insecurities to coalesce in mortifying incongruity. Of course it all unravels and of course there is mayhem, but the intentional, stifling restriction of a crowded house is what gives the movie its horror-esque quality. Sometimes, it feels like the bottle episode of a long-running sitcom, taking the obvious comedy and conferring new layers of emotion and tension on it precisely because of limitations in setting. Messy, intimate, and loud, the house itself is physically oppressive.

Seligman’s handheld, close-up camera style involves the audience in the film, heightening the intensity of Danielle’s turmoil by making the viewer an unwilling contributor to the fraught atmosphere. We are constantly too close and watching from uncomfortable angles, creating a physical unease that is expertly heightened by Ariel Marx’s score. Bringing much of the nuance, the unrelentingly visceral soundtrack’s swelling strings add to the panic-inducing tension – the music constantly builds to a climax that never really comes, reflecting Danielle’s (and our) need for the gathering to please just end already. Sound is integral to Shiva Baby’s brand of horror: the constant wail of a grumpy baby, awkward silences, the strained cadence of its interactions, the continuous, irritating buzz of gossip.

Nothing really happens, except perhaps our protagonist’s slow breakdown, but the wait is excruciating. Food is a central character here, spooned back and forth from serving dish to plate in Danielle’s endless moments of indecision; choking on a bagel and lox accents a surprising new piece of information, and eating/not eating is a recurring conversational theme. The intimate, untidy buffet both highlights the movie’s familial themes (food as uniting) and lays Danielle’s insecurities bare. The near body horror of her relentless picking and clawing at herself intensifies the discomfort of the scenario, furthered by her stifling proximity to others in the confined, busy house (which made Shiva Baby an even more intense watch given the context of the pandemic). This emphasises Rachel Sennott’s dedicated performance, effortlessly conveying the harsh multisensory experience of Danielle’s ordeal. It must be pointed out here that Sennott’s non-Jewish identity has come under much criticism. However, the widely noted close friendship between Sennott and Seligman (who based much of the plot on memories of her own Jewish family gatherings) facilitates Shiva Baby’s delicate balancing of humour, dread, and uncomfortable familiarity. 

The standout performance comes from Polly Draper, playing Danielle’s mother, whose comedic performance makes her character particularly poignant – she cuts through the drama with relatable maternal wit. Unlike other films in the popular art-house genre, young people can particularly relate to Shiva Baby, specifically the discomfort of seeing relatives for the first time in years (a barrage of ‘what are your plans now?’ and ‘you’ve lost weight’, all conversations that make you want the ground to swallow you up). A constant discord between being made to feel like an infant with all the fussing and fawning of familial gatherings, and the overwhelming expectations of adulthood, are painfully familiar. This does also become a bit repetitive, accompanied by slightly contrived dialogue that makes the film feel deliberately conducive to Twitter screencaps (disclaimer: this worked, we tweeted about it), rather than an immersive cinematic experience. While this is a criticism held for many new films and series, it seems particularly true for Shiva Baby. Quotes like “you look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps” and “that’s psychotic behaviour, but that makes sense for you” are admittedly delightful but simultaneously forced, sometimes limiting the tension building necessary for maintaining the film’s interest.

At the very end, we are rewarded with a brief moment of respite in the backseat of an even more chaotic setting (a packed van). As Danielle learns to accept healthy (ish) affection, the audience can finally exhale. Shiva Baby is an eminently entertaining coming-of-age story – easy to enjoy (although enjoy is probably the wrong word here given its effect on your heart rate) and we, for one, are very excited to see where Seligman’s filmmaking goes next.

hello! I’m Tilly, a third year geography student. I am mostly interested in (/ obsessed with) music, films and art – my faves include big black, andrei tarkovsky and leonora carrington! If you would like to chat about an article, have any recommendations, or literally anything at all, feel free to find me on instagram (@craggyland), twitter (@tillymasonn), or I’ll probably be at whatever album society event is on! 

Hi, I’m Namrata! I’m from India and I study PPE. I write mainly about TV, film, and literature (I’m currently into Fiona Apple, Vikram Seth, and The Sopranos!). If you want to discuss one of my articles or just talk about music/art/movies/books, you can find me on Instagram (@namrataamenon) and Twitter (@nammenon), or email me at n.anil-menon@lse.ac.uk.

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