Quirky, funny and intense, Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby is a very Jewish comedy, with all the tight tension of a psychological horror movie, set to a tantalizingly ominous score by Ariel Marx. Rachel Sennott delivers a stellar performance as Danielle, a young woman trying to navigate through the complexities of life, who finds herself in an unbearably awkward situation. Beyond the individual travails and tensions of Danielle, the film strikes a universal chord, evoking the confusion and struggles of a young woman striving for self-definition and exploring her sexuality, while contending with the pressures and expectations of family and society; constructing a façade of control to hide feelings of inadequacy.
A college senior with a major in Gender Studies that she seems not quite sure of, Danielle comes under the scrutiny of family and friends who gather for a shiva. She’s there to please her parents, but Debbie (the wonderful Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) are hard to please. Debbie has a constant stream of advice (instructions?) for Danielle, and Joel embarrasses her with the most cringe-worthy memories of her childhood. Everyone wants to know Danielle’s plans for the future – she doesn’t really have any, and what she’s doing now – babysitting – is clearly not impressive enough. Especially not since her ex, Maya, a cool and confident law student, is also at the shiva, her penetrating gaze confronting Danielle at every turn. Molly Gordon (Booksmart) is edgy and alluring as Maya. Are the sparks between the two flames of desire or the prelude to a disastrous explosion? The mystery of their relationship is one of the pleasures of the film.
Yet intrusive, annoying relatives and an ex-girlfriend are perhaps the least of Danielle’s worries. There’s also Max (Danny Deferrari), the handsome Sugar Daddy who thinks he’s helping Danielle get through law school. When Max shows up at the shiva, one might think things could not get worse… but then his beautiful and accomplished wife Kim (Dianna Agron) shows up with their baby, Rose.
The choreography of conversations is painfully funny, judgement masquerades as concern in acrobatics of one-upmanship and gossips dances all around. Danielle’s anxiety and claustrophobia is magnified by an intense focus on her face, in sharp contrast to her occasional attempts to fit in, accosting random relatives with a huge smile and artificial glee. The satiric look at Jewish tribal customs – suffocating love, constant competition and critique – is precise and hilarious. Danielle is not the most admirable heroine of her own narrative. Self-absorbed and over-indulged, her motivations are often obscure but her anguish and confusion elicit one’s empathy, and Rachel Sennott makes her struggles fascinating to watch.
TLVFest presents Shiva Baby with screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque through October 17th. Tickets and additional information may be found on the TLVFest website.
Written and directed by Emma Seligman; Cinematography: Maria Rusche; Editing: Hannah Park; Music: Ariel Marx; Cast: Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, Polly Draper; Fred Melamed, Molly Gordon, Dianna Agron.