There are a few moments in life where the dichotomy of promise and pressure collide as they do with family. Ideally, family are the folks who love and support you “no matter what,” yet, along with that, they also are the ones whose off-the-cuff comments can cut you to the quick like nothing else. Add in a special occasion and there’s nothing that can make you both at home and utterly destroyed like family. This intersection of familiarity and isolation is the basis for the suspense and terror in Emma Seligman’s terrifically agonizing feature debut dramedy Shiva Baby. Built off of Seligman’s eight-minute short final project at NYU of the same name, Shiva Baby speaks to the universal differences which erupt from one generation to the next while being fully ingrained within the Jewish community from which Seligman (and this reviewer) are members. One can understand the strain and dread the titular Shiva Baby endures, but being a member of the Jewish community raises the hilarity and discomfort to heights expected in high-grade thrillers. This achievement in tonal balance, cinematography, and narrative escalation offers one of the best high intensity/low stakes experiences of the year.
In the final stages of graduating from college, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is on the cusp of finding personal and financial freedom. The personal, however, is intertwined with the financial as her method of taking control extends beyond developing her own major and into sex work as a sugar baby. After wrapping with a client, Max (Danny Deferrari), Danielle heads to a post-funeral shiva to meet her parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), only to bump into her highly successful ex, Maya (Molly Gordon). Socially, the situation is awkward enough, but it gets worse when Max arrives to pay his respects, neither aware of their shared connection. Suddenly, every normal conversation appears weighted, every cultural tic an explosive waiting to detonate. The question isn’t whether Danielle can get out without revealing herself to her family, but how badly the damage will be before the lox and bagels are gone.
For those less familiar with the Jewish term, it’s important to at least explain one aspect central to the narrative before digging into Seligman’s deceptively challenging work: what’s a shiva? Put simply, it’s a reception intended for immediate family or close friends to spend time together following the funeral or gravesite. Customarily, a shiva lasts for seven consecutive days, but it’s really up to the family to decide. While it can be a place of mourning, it can also be celebratory as the family both catches up together and/or shares stories of the decedent. Mourning in the Jewish faith is intended to be communal and the shiva encourages closeness to ease the pain of the bereaved. Additionally, a sugar baby is someone, not necessarily female, who dates an older individual for financial incentives. It’s purely transactional, with each party in full understanding of what the other is getting out of their arrangement. More often than not, sugar babies engage in this form of sex work (although sex is not required in a sugar relationship) to fund their education, pay down debt, or to obtain financial independence.
With that context established, it’s easy to see where Seligman found her natural powder keg to set her story. Familial events are, in many cases, rife with tension as members catch-up with each other and engaging in the manner in which is both customary and in-line with the established relationships. Siblings will always tease siblings in a specific targeted way, parents will always view their children as deferential, and relatives will be some blending of the two. Danielle is in full-control when we meet her, quite literally riding Max to climax, before getting herself dressed to leave immediately post-coitus. The conversation between the two is brief and the physical performance from the actors implies a power dynamic where she has dominance. Then she goes to the shiva and immediately is on the defensive about her education (that no one understands), her future (which is in flux), and her social life (which is entirely secret). We are each, in our own ways, harboring secrets and, strangely, it’s when we’re with family that we feel the most raw and vulnerable instead of protected. Think of the version of yourself you want to be versus the one you are with family: do you only offer the highlights or do you provide genuine information? How do they react? Is it with surprise at the turn from casual conversation into something more meaningful and introspective or is it surprise and defense as the version of you they expected is cast away? Placing the bulk of the film at the shiva allows Seligman to amplify the tension without applying any ridiculous measures. Placing Danielle at the shiva among her family, her ex, and her sugar daddy correlates to an examination of self and whether the assuredness of self-actualization is built upon insecurity or true empowerment.
Externalizing the internal is, perhaps, the hardest thing a storyteller can do. As the performer, Sennott is masterful at this, finding ways to communicate the seemingly endless spiral, the constant foraging for grip, growing in speed and intensity with each subsequent interaction. It certainly helps that the scenes are staged for maximum discomfort, so that when Sennott as Danielle does engage, the push-pull of anxiety/release, seems never-ending. Part of this comes from the set and production design of the home making up the primary location. As presented, it looks like one narrow space leading to another, made to look tiny in part to the number of background people, the physicality of the performers (many open themselves up), and the cinematography (which utilizes the intimacy of family as the excuse for a near-constant use of tight shots). The home isn’t labyrinthian, but the simple staging and blocking makes just about every room feel claustrophobic, closing in tighter with each attempted obfuscation by Danielle. The cinematography by Maria Rusche (Big Exit) is particularly impressive, as the use of a pulled focus keeps the audience zeroed in on Danielle and how she feels amid the shiva, often keeping the object of her attention fuzzy. I interpreted this as Danielle’s own uncertainty about her feelings in that moment. Does she want the truth to come out about her and Max? If so, why? In another scene, Rusche and Seligman stage the shot to convey the rupturing shift in power Danielle is experiencing when her parents “introduce” her to Max. In their view, Max is someone who might be able to help her post-graduation (playing off of the child-parent relationship) while simultaneously we’re aware of the threat this poses to her balance of power with Max (he suddenly knows more about her personally vs. physically) and risks breaking her own perceived self-worth in the process. Here, the camera is tight on all the scene partners as they sort of huddle together to chat amid the mourners about Danielle’s future (something which might seem distasteful if not for the general understanding of how Jews view the continuation of life outside of loss). Something that I enjoyed is the framing of Danielle as tightly between her parents, each of them intruding on her personal space as they extoll her virtues to Max, depicted as less spatially encumbered. Later, as new information comes to light, even Max is given a similar tightly packed presentation, ramping up the tension as all the players seem to get crammed into smaller and smaller spaces despite being surrounded by family in a welcoming home. A tip of the hat to composer Ariel Marx (The Tale) whose score would be just as home in The Vigil (2021), The Bloodhound (2020), or the aptly compared Uncut Gems (2019), as it does in this dramedy. There is nothing so torturous as well-meaning family and Marx’s music underscores this beautifully.
As a cishet male, I cannot begin to understand the sexual component of Seligman’s story. As accepting as I’ve found my family (biological, chosen, and religious), there is still a gap between non-conforming and traditional expectations that my own experience cannot speak to. What I can speak to is how the most well-intentioned familial act can turn volatile due to expectations. That feeling that creeps up on you when the person you looked up to asks a question (harmless at best) and the answer may shift how they see you. “What are you doing after college?” or “Are you seeing anyone?” becomes a round in a loaded gun, except, in this case, it feels more like a raging fire which each question only billows further. This tension that Seligman uses, that of preying upon Danielle’s insecurities in the most non-threatening way possible (via well-intentioned individuals unaware of the landmines they keep treading upon), creates a joyous, yet nerve-racking experience. This aspect I understand completely as I still feel like I’m proving myself to my parents, siblings, and family members amid whatever expectations (I presume) they once had for me. In this way, Seligman perfectly captures the beautiful and pain of family, the theater that often accompanies each interaction, and the way personal identity pushes against public perception. And that ending? Oy, Seligman is certainly a member of the Tribe.
In select theaters and available on VOD April 2nd, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.