Shiva Baby (2020)

A unique tension filled dark comedy that captures the complex situations arising due to societal pressures and family dynamics

7/10/20234 min read

Rachel Sennott as Danielle in 'Shiva Baby'
Rachel Sennott as Danielle in 'Shiva Baby'

English, 77 minutes, 2020

Director: Emma Seligman

Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron, Fred Melamed

Awards: Nominated for Director Guild awards, America; Nominated for best independent film, Hollywood critics association, 2022; Winner at Fil Independent Spirit Awards, 2022; Best First Film at Austin Film critics Association; The film won 11 awards overall and received 44 nominations.

Shiva is a ritual in the Jewish community which starts immediately after the burial and lasts for seven days. This is attended by the close, meaning, first relation relatives who are expected to stay at the house for seven days and other friends and distant relatives visit the aggrieved family over these seven days. This ritual forms the crucial backdrop for this film ‘Shiva Baby’.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a bisexual college going girl who is “dragged” to a Shiva and she goes along without actually knowing who passed away. There she meets with host of people along with two characters who had had intimate relations with her. This creates awkward situations that Danielle clearly is not equipped to handle. As she is going to Shiva, she notices ‘Maya’ (Molly Gordon), another girl of same age who is taking admission in a law school. Maya is markedly different from Danielle. Danielle is confused whereas Maya comes across as confidant young girl. Danielle is not sure about which college she is going to attend, whereas Maya is going to law school. Danielle is continuously over protected by her mother whereas Maya is very self –assured and doesn’t need any protection. Interestingly, Maya is also the girl with whom Danielle had brief fling earlier. They fell apart because it seems nobody initiated the approach but they still ‘missed’ each other. Maya does try to help Danielle whenever she thinks Danielle is caught in some uncomfortable situation, but Danielle, due to her inferiority complex, resists her.

Another person is Max (Danny Deferrari ), her sugar daddy with whom Danielle has had sex just before coming to Shiva. Sugar Daddy is a term referred to older male having sexual relation with much younger girl, generally in exchange of gifts or cash. She spots Max at the Shiva and soon learns from her mother that he is married which Danielle didn’t know. Worse, he also has a child and his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron) is an entrepreneur who runs three businesses. Danielle is introduced as a baby sitter to her and she is looking to hire a baby sitter for attending to her 18 month old baby. However, Danielle is uncomfortable and declines. During the exchange, Kim notices and remarks that Danielle is wearing a bracelet which matches exactly with hers. Unknown to her, Max had given Danielle this bracelet as the gift during their last encounter.

As the day progresses, due to awkwardness of Danielle and her gazes at Max, Kim becomes suspicious. She asks Danielle to hold her baby for few minutes because she has to take something out of her bag. Danielle is not keen and resists but Kim thrusts the baby in her hands and starts looking inside her bag. When Max notices baby in the arms of Danielle, he takes the baby forcibly from her making Danielle lose her balance and hit a table causing a glass vase and some religious books to fall down. As she struggles to pick that up she has a breakdown and her mother, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Maya rush to help her. Debbie consoles her and soon they all leave in a comic sequence where Danielle’s father Joel (Fred Melamed) is keen to pack everyone in his van. The ending sequence shows Maya holding Danielle’s hand conveying that she is there for her.

Rachel Sennott impresses as a young girl subjected to inquiries, judgements and doubts, fumbling her way through the Shiva running away from her mother at one time and from other relatives at other times. She captures the awkwardness and vulnerability of the situation, often resorting to sly and self-deprecating humor to navigate the chaos around her. Sennott's portrayal is both relatable and compelling, making Danielle a character, viewers can sympathize with.

The supporting cast also delivers strong performances, adding depth to the film. Molly Gordon shines as Danielle's ex-girlfriend, Maya, providing moments of tenderness and illustrating the complexity of their relationship. Dianna Agron impresses as Max's seemingly perfect wife, Kim, adding a layer of tension and intrigue to the storyline. Polly Draper is very good as Debbie, Danielle’s mother, who constantly watches over her daughter and wants to protect her at all times from everyone. Together, the ensemble cast brings the characters to life and enhances the film's overall impact.

This is director, Emma’s first film and as her debut film she has done pretty decent job. Incidentally, she had made ‘Shiva baby’ as a short film earlier in 2018 by the same title, which she had made as her thesis project while studying film at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

A notable feature of the film is the music which uses only strings and in some scenes indeed adds tremendous value in accentuating the tension to form desired climax. The film almost progresses at real time pace and uses a 2-3 hour window to depict what really transpires during a Shiva ritual. Emma Seligman has captured the atmosphere very well- the prying aunts, the inquisitive elders who want to know whom are you dating, which school you are going to attend and so on. And then how these investigative attitudes put unnecessary pressure on teenagers. Overall, ‘Shiva Baby’ is a standout film that expertly combines humor, discomfort, and emotional depth.

About the director, Emma Seligman

Emma Seligman is Canadian, Jewish screenwriter and director who passed out of New York University Tisch school of arts in 2017. For her thesis project she had made a short film titled ‘Shiva Baby’. So her first film is elaboration of her earlier short film of same name. She is based in New York City.

Emma grew up in Toronto in a very tight –knit Jewish community and had plenty of opportunities to observe keenly what goes on at such social functions and rituals from close quarters according to her own admission, in an interview with MUBI, the OTT platform which distributed the film.

Generally Critics generously appreciated the movie and Emma Seligman’s first feature film with Rachel too winning few awards for her performance as Danielle.