Written and directed by Emma Seligman that is based on her 2018 short film, Shiva Baby is the story of a young Jewish bisexual woman who attends a Shiva as she deals with family and others where she copes with her lack of direction in life as well as everyone else around her. The film is a coming-of-age story of sorts set almost in one entire location where a young woman is still trying to figure herself out while attending college and uncertain about her own relationship status. Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Jackie Hoffman, Sondra James, Deborah Offner, and Dianna Agron. Shiva Baby is a riveting yet chaotic film from Emma Seligman.
The film revolves around a young college student who attends a Shiva with her parents as the guests include not just relatives but also a former girlfriend and a man, who is her sugar daddy, who is also married and has a baby. It’s a film that takes place almost in real time where a young woman attends this Jewish funeral observance known as a Shiva for a relative where she deals with people around her as they question about what she’s doing as well as her lack of direction with her former girlfriend already going to law school. Emma Seligman’s screenplay is straightforward as it opens with the protagonist Danielle (Rachel Sennott) having sex with an older man as she is a sex worker of sorts where she gets the call to attend a Shiva with her parents in Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper).
Much of the story is set at a house where there is a lot happening with Danielle having to talk with relatives and family friends where they ask her a lot of questions about her future as she is finishing college. Yet, a lot is happening with the presence of her former girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and the man she had sex with earlier that day in Max (Danny Deferrari) who is revealed to be married to a successful entrepreneur in the non-Jewish Kim (Dianna Agron) and with an 18-month old baby.
Seligman’s direction is largely straightforward but also claustrophobic in its setting as it is shot largely on location in Brooklyn inside an actual house. While there are a few wide shots including the film’s opening shot of Danielle having sex with Max as it goes on for a few minutes. Much of Seligman’s direction relies on close-ups and medium shots to not just play into this air of claustrophobia that Danielle is dealing with but also the number of people inside this small house. The usage of hand-held cameras and Steadicams add to the sense of movement within the house as there are a few moments where Danielle and other go outside as much of the action at the house takes place in real time. Notably as there is a lot of talking and overlapping dialogue where there’s one scene of Danielle eating while two women talk in front of her as she’s looking at someone else.
These moments occur often while there are also these moments of tension between Danielle and Maya as it is clear there is still feelings but the latter is still upset over some things and acts out quietly which only adds to the anxieties that Danielle is dealing with. Even as an hour at the event goes by where she thinks about having a moment with Max but also has to deal with Kim and their baby who constantly cries throughout the film where Seligman uses it to create some tension and chaos that looms throughout the film. Overall, Seligman crafts an evocative and compelling film about a young woman’s attendance at a Shiva and how it confronts the lack of direction in her life.
Cinematographer Maria Rusche does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography as it is largely low-key for much of the film’s interior settings as the film takes place during the day with some natural lighting for a few of the film’s exterior shots. Editor Hanna A. Park does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts and a slow-motion sequence of sorts that play into Danielle’s anxieties. Production designer Cheyenne Ford and art director Jack Dobens do fantastic work with the interiors of the house in how small the rooms are as well as some of the small details in the rooms the characters go into.
Costume designer Michelle J. Li does nice work with the costumes with everyone wearing black as part of this religious gathering with some of the dresses to be fashionable while much of it is just a bit casual. Sound editor Hunter Berk does superb work with the sound in the way a group of people can sound inside a small room or in a kitchen as it adds to the film’s claustrophobic tone. The film’s music by Ariel Marx is incredible for its disconcerting string-based score that play into the dramatic tension with pieces that are haunting as it is a major highlight of the film.
The casting by Kate Gellar is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Deborah Offner as the family friend Ellie, Ariel Eliaz as the rabbi for the Shiva, Cilda Shaur and Glynis Bell as a couple of chatty relatives, Edgar Harmanci as Max and Kim’s wailing baby Rose, Sondra James as an elder relative in Maureen whom Danielle and Maya are fond of, and Jackie Hoffman as Maya’s mother Susan. Dianna Agron is fantastic as Kim as the non-Jewish entrepreneur who attends the Shiva as she talks about her own accomplishments while offering to give Danielle some advice in a well-meaning way. Danny Deferrari is excellent as Kim’s husband Max who is also Danielle’s sugar daddy as someone who isn’t this great man that Danielle thought he is despite his own minimal success which is small compared to what his wife does.
Fred Melamed and Polly Draper are brilliant in their respective roles as Danielle’s parents in Joel and Debbie with the former being the father who is often forgetting things and often rambles while the latter is a control freak while trying to help Danielle where she becomes concerned over what Danielle is doing with her life. Molly Gordon is amazing as Maya as a former girlfriend of Danielle who is about to enter law school as she has managed to get her life together yet has a lot of bitterness towards Danielle over the fall-out of their relationship though she still cares about her. Finally, there’s Rachel Sennott in a phenomenal performance as Danielle as a college senior, who is also an escort of sorts, who is dealing with her own lack of direction as her time at a Shiva just adds to this anxiety as there’s a bit of wit but also a lot of anguish into a young woman that has little control about her life as well as the many revelations she is dealing with at the Shiva.
Shiva Baby is a sensational film from Emma Seligman. Featuring a great leading performance from Rachel Sennott as well as an incredible ensemble cast, a simple yet effective presentation, Ariel Marx’s eerie music score, and its exploration of a young woman dealing with a lot at a Shiva. It is a film that has a lot of wit but also compelling moments that play into this Jewish funeral ritual with a young woman being surrounded by relatives, an ex-girlfriend, and others that just bring up a lot of anxiety. In the end, Shiva Baby is a phenomenal film rom Emma Seligman.
© thevoid99 2021