By Noah Gittell
“Shiva Baby,” a riotous new cringe comedy, centers on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a Jewish, bisexual college student attending her senior year of college in New York and working as an escort to make a little money before graduation. Who says Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas?
Of course, the film isn’t exactly the product of Hollywood. It’s the feature film debut of 24-year-old writer-director Emma Seligman, who made a short based on the same concept as a student at NYU and has now cobbled together the distribution to expand it into a feature. Inspired by her own experiences watching female classmates use a niche app called Seeking Arrangements to find older men to be their “sugar daddies”, she crafted a fascinating character in Danielle, who finds herself stuck in a mortifying situation that, despite its unusual particulars, reflects the insecurities of any young person on the verge of entering the real world.
As the title suggests, the film is set at a shiva, where Danielle’s worlds collide like a train wreck. She doesn’t know the deceased, but her parents (played note-perfectly by Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) have insisted she attends. They pay her bills, so she goes but is unprepared for the carousel of emotional threats waiting for her. There’s her secret ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), a more successful and confident version of Danielle who her parents both constantly compare her to and, suspicious of their romance, warn her away from. A surprise attendee is her sugar daddy/client Max (Danny Defarrari), who shows up with his beautiful shiksa wife and screaming toddler. Danielle didn’t know he had either and his presence threatens to expose her side-hustle to her family. As she tries to navigate this war zone, she is attacked by an endless swarm of family, friends, and interchangeable Bubbes, who are constantly reminding her that she’s too single, too aimless, and, of course, too thin.
An immediate new entry in the Jewish film canon, the clever film updates the familiar tropes with an eye for our particular moment. “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps,” says Danielle’s doting mother, “and not in a good way.” Rarely has dialogue located the exact middle-ground between genuine concern and passive-aggression. The screenplay is heavy on quips, mostly to provide some genuine levity amidst its emotional pain, but it never sacrifices character for jokes. Seligman ensures that we are attuned to Danielle’s misery every step of the way, and she expertly builds the tension through strong attention to craft. The camera stays tight on her face through the whole ordeal, so there is no escape for her or for us, while the staccato string score by Ariel Marx, which feels better suited to a horror movie, accentuates every humiliation.
To support its vision of social distress, “Shiva Baby” is armed with a stellar cast of game performers. Sennott is a revelation, underplaying the simmering tension, allowing us to project our own social anxiety (built up after a year of quarantine), and only boiling over when it’s called for. The supporting cast is pitch-perfect, especially Gordon, who radiates a quiet confidence as the more put-together Molly. With her quick wit and graceful aura, it’s easy to see why Danielle is both infatuated with and jealous of her, and their scenes together are infused with the pleasing, familiar rhythms of romantic comedy.
At 72 minutes, “Shiva Baby” feels slightly underdeveloped, more like an expanded short (which is what it is) than a film designed for feature length. On the other hand, I’m not sure anyone could take another second of its high-level stress, and it would feel false to add on a final scene in which Danielle shows she has learned a life lesson from this experience. Its successes are evident and need no underlining.
In her auspicious debut, Seligman expands the tropes of the Jewish coming-of-age drama through sheer craft and a willingness to explore topics of sex and power that feel relevant today. She has a great career ahead of her. Mazel tov!
“Shiva Baby” is now available to stream, where streaming movies are streamed.