Family gatherings can be a pain in the behind. It’s where you see close friends and relatives again after a long time and you get bombarded with personal questions that you either don’t like answering or have no answer to. But of course there is this unsaid etiquette that you have to entertain them and endure the nosiness of your loved ones.
In Emma Seligman’s hilarious debut Shiva Baby, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) navigates through the shiva—a Jewish tradition in which the family of the deceased receives guests to mourn and pray together—of a family friend she did not even know personally after being asked by her highly strung parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) to attend. As people constantly commented on her physical appearance (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps!” exclaimed by one woman) and questioned her about her faltering academic career, she encounters her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), who is praised by the others for entering law school. There is a clear tension between the two as they maneuver through close friends and family in the shiva. It takes an even more awkward turn when Danielle’s sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) and his wife (Dianna Agron) appear. Danielle has to weave a web of lies to create a different version of herself that appeals to everyone.
Seligman’s own experience with family gatherings brings an authenticity to the film, from the tiny details of the food to the noisy gossip of the older women in a gathering that’s supposed to be for mourning. This creates an engrossing experience for the viewer. Even though the title singles out the Jewish experience, the film is universal, as is the annoyance of family gatherings. It’s quite comforting to know that we are not alone in what we feel in such situations.
Shiva Baby is a thrill-ride from start to finish as we watch Danielle endure such a stressful gathering. Always being put on the spot, she lies about herself to not embarrass her parents on what she actually does for a living: being a sugar baby. Seligman executes the feeling of claustrophobia through camera work and setting; with the accompaniment of strings that bring out feelings of nervousness throughout the film, scenes are made anxiety-inducing. Another thing of note is the hard-to-execute comedic timing that Seligman formulates in her script, which brings out little moments of relief as Danielle’s situation gets tenser.
Other than its uneasy hilarity, the film also delves into the topic of sex work, bisexuality and its erasure, and concern about the future. This is what’s so great about Seligman’s debut: through Danielle’s experiences, Seligman brings the struggles of the current generation to the big screen. At a time of economic uncertainty, it is scary for someone nearly done with college to answer questions about what’s next in their lives. With the rise of sites such as OnlyFans, Danielle’s sex work is better understood by the current generation, as it intersects with the economic difficulties we are already familiar with. There is also a conversation between Danielle and her mother where her bisexuality is invalidated because of the stigma around it and how it is just a “phase”.
The ensemble cast gives a strong entertaining performance, especially Sennott’s amazing portrayal of Danielle. She brings out genuineness in her portrayal; the feeling of wanting to escape while enduring interrogation and humiliation is palpable.
Shiva Baby is an exciting comedy that goes through the pain and humiliation of being a 20-something in college during a family gathering. Everyone can see themselves in Danielle as they’ve been through a similar experience. And even after all the tense yet funny experiences we see through Danielle’s eyes, it ends with a reminder that everything will be fine.