“Who the f*** brings a baby to a shiva?”
Maybe it’s uncouth to bring a baby to a funeral, but it’s plenty traditional to bring baggage, deception, and one-upmanship.
Shiva Baby follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott) attending a shiva for an acquaintance in her suburban New York Jewish community, where things don’t exactly go as plan. Shadowed closely by her parents and the doting (and judgementally inquisitive) members of the community, she unexpectedly runs into her ex-girlfriend, and sugar daddy, as her worlds start to collide in a hilariously tense and claustrophobic farce.
Danielle encapsulates the artistic and intellectually curious outsider, exploring herself by creating alternate and inconsistent personas in the big city. In Shiva Baby Danielle must return home and struggle under the weight of others’ expectations, while being confronted by an unanticipated identity crisis.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is an authentic portrayal of a young New York / New Jersey Jewish girl. She struggles under the withering eye of family, community, and the expectations of performative Jewishness. At times thoroughly uncomfortable, it’s a testament to the top-notch performances and insightful commentary that you never dare look away.
Fred Melamed, who plays Danielle’s father Joel, is delightful as always, flexing his considerable chops in a role tailor-made for him. Polly Draper plays Debbie, the perfect embodiment of the overbearing Jewish mother, and steals every frame she’s in.
But the real revelations of Shiva Baby are its star Sennott, and Dianna Agron (of Glee fame). Sennott hits every note, from sexy to exasperated to uncertain and overwhelmed, in a powerful performance that heralds bigger things to come for the young actress. Agron plays the previously unknown wife of Danielle’s sugar daddy and mother of the titular shiva baby. She delivers a mature and layered performance, with both depth and restraint in her brief role.
Shiva Baby touches (a little clumsily) on social media, the permeation of unscrutinized dating apps, and the indifference or obliviousness of the pre-gen z class to today’s evaporating socioeconomic structures. Seligman is in total control, alternating camera angles and color gradients to weave in-and-out of Danielle’s mind as the shiva devolves to farce.
A stunning directorial debut, Seligman announces herself as a young multi-hyphenate with something to say, and the skill to say it with exceptional polish. Shiva Baby is funny, hypnotic, and captivating — one of the must-see films of early 2021.