RACH LEONG reviews the anxiety-inducing dark comedy Shiva Baby.
‘A Jewish girl, her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend walk into a funeral service’ has to be the catchiest logline this year, yet Shiva Baby (2020) transcends the bar joke setup to become a surprisingly introspective character study about all the ways young women twist, fold and compress their identities to fit into different social worlds.
Danielle (Rachel Sennott, who delivers her lines with an acerbic sting that could rival Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird) is a college student side hustling as a sugar baby. She does this not out of financial necessity, but rather to gain a semblance of control as she struggles to find a sense of direction in life. The film opens with Danielle entertaining her sugar daddy, Max, (Danny Deferrari, looking like a young Mandy Patinkin in Yentl) at his apartment before being called away to attend a shiva—a traditional Jewish mourning ritual—by her hilarious parents (played by Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). In a mortifying turn of events, Max coincidentally shows up to the same gathering. The poor girl chokes on her bagel when she realises he has a beautiful wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), who arrives soon after, wailing baby in tow. To further complicate matters, her bitter high school ex Maya (Molly Gordon) is in attendance too, basking in the praise of getting into law school, as Danielle channels the exasperation of every liberal arts major who has ever had to justify their degree to their extended family.
Writer-director Emma Seligman tackles a taboo subject with the authenticity of a filmmaker telling a story she knows best. The 25-year-old’s impressive debut feature expands on the thesis short she made at NYU Tisch, drawing inspiration from sugar dating subculture at NYU in addition to her own personal experiences as a bisexual Jewish woman. The film’s riveting 77-minute runtime is full of awkward encounters as Danielle manoeuvres the house like an obstacle course, fielding a barrage of questions from prying relatives and neighbours about her post-graduation plans (non-existent), romantic prospects (nothing serious) and comments on her weight (too skinny), all while trying to keep her extracurricular profession a secret.
Seligman manages to sustain a well-paced atmosphere of tension in the single-location setting by utilising tight spaces, disconcerting close-ups and overlapping dialogue, assisted by Hanna Park’s snappy editing, Maria Rusche’s immersive camerawork and Ariel Marx’s suspenseful score. Shots reminiscent of Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha (2015) are particularly effective, framing scenes of conversations with a key character lingering in the background, out of focus but always visible to the audience. Witnessing Danielle spin herself further into a web of lies evokes the panic levels of Uncut Gems (2019) and the horror realism of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) made for modern-day young adults. We watch her fumble through her condolences, fend off middle-aged aunts, bicker and flirt with Maya, rip her tights and make several questionable choices in the bathroom. The whole day is a chaotic train wreck and we can feel the impending doom well before things come crashing down around her in the third act.
Despite the cultural specificity of the film, its themes are universal and painfully relatable. Like many of us, Danielle grapples with external insecurities originating from societal pressure, as well as internal ones leading her to seek the validation that comes with being sexually desired. Golden girl Maya embodies the traditional version of success upheld by their close-knit community, while female entrepreneur Kim is the personification of independence sought after by Danielle; yet both are later revealed to not be as self-assured as they seem.
When we build our self-worth on the approval of others, what do we have left to stand on once it’s gone? Whether facing an uncertain future or a fear of disappointing the people we love, Shiva Baby will resonate with those of us who are still trying to find our footing in life. Though you can occasionally feel the film stretching its limited budget, minor continuity blips can be easily overlooked by the time it culminates in an ending so tender, hopeful and delightfully cringeworthy. I cannot wait to see what Emma Seligman is up to next.
Shiva Baby is set for a wide release in 2021.
Featured image source: TIFF