Review: Shiva Baby


Director: Emma Seligman

Stars: Rachel Sennott, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper

Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby (which I choose to believe is named as such in a nod of respect to ’70s Pam Grier action flick Sheba, Baby) arrives via MUBI in the UK on a promising wave of praise; praise that is (yes!) absolutely deserved. Seligman’s debut is a scratchy, funny, brash southpaw pitched from a young filmmaker ready to break some windows.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a young bisexual Jewish woman who goes with her parents to the shiva of a family friend. There she sparks with long-term friend and one-time sex partner Maya (Molly Gordon), while under the on-again off-again glare of her parents.

While Danielle’s father, Joel (the mighty Fred Melamed) is a rather harmless, buffoonish presence, it is her mother Debbie (Polly Draper) that our fledgling protagonist bristles with most frequently. Debbie’s declaration that she is “so open minded” is icily passive-aggressive, while she’s far happier throwing out barbs like “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps and not in a good way”. It’s a wonderfully acidic sketch of a mother/daughter relationship.

Shiva Baby is peppered with wry observations of the generational gap; the conservative values of boomers verses Gen Z’s progressive politics in which the study of gender identities and feminism are legitimate choices that wearily require constant defense. The disparity between the two viewpoints allows for plenty of eye-rolling on both sides of the aisle, and Seligman is smart enough to find humour at the expense of all.

The film embraces and roasts the trappings of Jewish tradition in equal measure, but you don’t need a code-wheel to crack it open. Any black sheep of any family can relate to the jumble of half-truths that are circulated about Danielle because her relatives are starved of water-tight information. She is constantly battling against the contradictory word-of-mouth narratives that have been written about her. It all amasses into a scruffy, patchwork identity. A cut on her thigh comes to feel like a potent metaphor for the open wounds in her self-esteem.

But, importantly, we are not here to pity her.

Seligman’s movie is tight (77 minutes) and prickly. Her camera roams with her performers, while the music from Ariel Marx plucks strings that vibrate alongside Danielle’s bitchy bad temper and litany of embarrassments.

At this sombre ceremony, Danielle discovers that her sometime transactional sex partner Max (Danny Deferrari) is married with children and that all of them are also present. Seligman internalises Danielle’s combustion by placing her or those she eavesdrops at odds in the suburban space, alternately framed in deep background and even out of focus. These crowded rooms come to feel awkwardly over-populated and claustrophobic; an echo of Danielle’s own disharmony. Then, inevitably, she pays off her set-ups with a succession of collisions. It’s a riot.

Puckish Amerian indies are ten-a-penny at the moment, but Seligman’s offering (which has the callous, slutty charm and truisms of a developmental Fleabag, brimming with “fuck this” honesty) comfortably sits near the top of the current crop. A sex-positive, bitch-positive miniature odyssey of awkward exchanges, cringe comedy, clashing sensibilities and to-die-for dialogue. Danielle is a wonderfully messy invention; the kind of woman who’ll take nude selfies in the bathroom at a mourning ceremony and Sennott tears through the material given to her like lightning.

If you enjoy the potential of an hour and fifteen minute anxiety attack (but, y’know, a fun one with orgasms n shit), then this is really one to look out for. MUBI are killing it lately with their acquisitions.

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