Every once in a while, a film debut hits you like a bullet. In the wake of the pandemic, the frequency of this sensation has vastly increased, as studios desperate for any amount of money are throwing a few thousand dollars at hungry first-timers – often women and POC who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity – to make their own film, resulting in some interesting, exciting new projects that might not otherwise have gotten their due credit. But few projects I’ve seen from the last year have managed to stick with me quite like Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s breakthrough debut starring rising comedian Rachel Sennott. It’s a film I saw for the first time last fall, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Sharply acerbic, equally humanist and misanthropic, and ultimately brilliant, Shiva Baby is a once-in-a-generation release that you won’t want to miss.
Danielle (Sennott) is a college senior worried about the next stage in her life. While at home she’s at the mercy of her controlling, but loving parents Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), at school she’s trying to find herself, breaking from her parents’ wishes to pursue Gender Studies and moonlighting as a sugar baby for a rich client named Max (Danny Deferrari). After the death of an acquaintance back in her childhood neighborhood, Danielle is summoned home for the shiva, consisting of her parents, her aunt, and the entire Jewish community she grew up in. Things are already bad enough as she deals with comments about her weight, her major, her post-graduation plans, and the judgmental looks passed around the gathering. But not only does she have to dodge her parents and elderly relatives – she also has to dodge her high school best friend/ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon). And then…Max shows up. With his young shiksa wife Kim (Dianna Agron). With their newborn baby. Suddenly a painful experience in her childhood home transforms into a hell on Earth.
After a year in quarantine, a good percentage of the population have developed a nostalgia for the outside world; for fraternizing with others and gathering with friends and neighbors. It’s part of the appeal that Lovers Rock and Another Round and beyond. But there’s another reality of these gatherings that these films ignore, and that Shiva Baby gets so right: people are the worst. Seligman draws on the grand tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre to capture the hellish realities of large gatherings, and honestly, she executes it perfectly. This film is one long anxiety attack inspired by large groups of horrifically irritating people. As Danielle navigates the wake, we the audience see every two-faced, passive-aggressive comment, flung in every direction. The way these people insult each other through sweetly uttered “compliments,” gossip behind each other’s backs, and create obvious fronts to conjure a “holier-than-thou” persona is a feat of impeccable writing, and is more fascinating than any action sequence in the last 40 superhero films I’ve reviewed.
This is an image of humanity at its worst, finding pleasure in destroying each other, oftentimes through the fallacy of “love and support.” As much as we’re supposed to laugh at Danielle’s naïveté and selfishness, it all makes sense when you see the judgments she faces at home. Her brief sojourn home subjects her to comments both unintentionally condescending, like the fact her major could help her “run those marches, like the pink pussy hats!” to the needlessly cruel, like comments about her weight and her mother’s knife-twisting references to Danielle’s bisexuality as “experimenting.” Seligman captures the inhumanity of human contact with a light-handedness directors well beyond her 24 years of age would kill for, and she uses every square inch of this far-too-claustrophobic house as metaphor. Even with the film’s beautiful conclusion that the stifling horrors of human contact can be durable with the right person to love, it is hard not to view this film as a visual illustration of social anxiety, brought to life in vivid realness.
One of the other impressive details of Seligman’s film is how explicitly Jewish it is. There’s a terrific quote by Roger Ebert that I’ve read recently about how the more specific a scenario, the more universal it becomes. This is the case with Shiva Baby – by focusing on the specificity of this tightknit Jewish community, Seligman manages to tell a story that anyone from a tightknit group can understand, whether it’s a community of Italians, or Indians, or Muslims, or in my case, Polish Catholics. And yet, despite this universality, this is a film that simultaneously cannot be anything but Jewish. Seligman layers this film with an immersive blend of both lived-in honesty and an understanding of classic Jewish humor, from Borsch Belt comedians to Mike Nichols and Elaine May to The Coen Brothers (this film would make a helluva double feature with A Serious Man).
Seligman manages to find the humor and reality in moments that seem so real, they could only be lived-in, like Danielle’s parents making her rehearse a story about her post-college plans to impress the neighbors, or the disdain in the voices of the older women discussing Kim’s heritage. “I hear her dad is Jewish,” one comments. “That doesn’t count,” another replies, without hesitation. The judgmental parents are a classic trope in all coming-of-age storytelling, and you could have inserted any religion or heritage in here and had the same effect (well, except for WASPs, who prefer a more aggressively passive-aggressive approach). But by utilizing her own heritage and experiences, Seligman has made a film that is both more personal and more universal, and all for the better.
At its core, however, Shiva Baby is about Danielle’s journey into womanhood, and both Seligman and Sennott explore this story in fascinating ways. Why does Danielle work as a sugar baby? She certainly wants for nothing, just like Seligman’s NYU compatriots whom she based the screenplay on. But that’s the central question that Seligman is asking: is this a retaliation against a spoiled upbringing – a bourgeoise act of “rebellion,” so to speak – or does it speak to a cultural revolution as a youth struggles to embrace her own freedom from a community that constantly infantilizes and diminishes her? Few scenes are as harrowing or as symbolic as the moment where the group of nagging neighbors gathers around her, pinching at her, denying her own autonomy, and singing the song they used to serenade her with as a baby. This is a film about the concept of “trying to have it all” when defining yourself as a human; it’s about power, and challenging the things you know as a means of establishing control, in ways both healthy (forming relationships on her terms, not her parents’) and unhealthy (trying to seduce a married man during the wake). The fact she can’t tell where the power ends and love begins is simply a side effect of both her rebellion and society at large. In a lot of ways, this film is for young women what The Graduate once was to young men.
All of this works, of course, because Seligman is such an assured, exciting director. She balances the film’s thematic and symbolic material with great ease, and punctuates each frame with a striking panache. Seligman possesses a gift for capturing humor onscreen. While this seems like an easy accomplishment, I can honestly say there are few director who can so confidently tackle both verbal comedy and visual gags. One minute characters are making declarations like “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps,” the next we see Danielle interpreting her mother’s “loving” invite to move back in with them as a threat, and the next we watch an old woman with an expired license drive off into the distance, punctuated with an off-camera screeching car and horn honk. And I dare not spoil the final setup, but rest assured, it is a master class in visual, thematic comedy. These are simple gags in theory, but it takes a real pro to make them all work congruently with each other.
Seligman’s skills don’t end there. She works with each and every member of the crew to elevate this film on a technical level, and to drive home the overall aesthetic of a narrative anxiety attack. The editing by Hanna A. Park is some of the finest of the year, carefully alternating between comedic rhythms and horror-esque tension. Two sequences in particular, one involving the rising anxiety of being drilled by parents, questioned by an ex, and punctuated by the sound design of a crying baby, and the other centered around the rising tension of delayed dirty texts slowly arriving on someone’s phone at an inopportune time, feature some of the best directing and editing I’ve seen from a first-time director. Seligman and Park know exactly how to elicit emotions from their audience, whether that emotion is laughs, “awws,” or, more often than not, gasps in terror. And the more complications they add (new guests, new problems, and so on), the more the emotions alternate in rapid succession. Meanwhile, Maria Rusche’s cinematography also adds to the overall panic, as she crafts demonic close-ups of tasks as simple as eating and swings the camera wildly between faces as everything goes to sh*t. And I can’t forget to mention Ariel Marx’s score, one of my favorites of last year, which ironically evokes horror scores of old, even as the action onscreen appears to be jaunty or jovial. It’s a brilliant touch, and I can’t wait to buy the album whenever it’s released.
As for the directing, there’s no doubt in my mind this is an early contender for the best ensemble of the year. As Danielle, Rachel Sennott grows as an artist before our very eyes. She’s definitely solid from the jump – quick-witted, relatably emotional, and struggling to find herself in the most frustrating position known to man or woman. She is, perhaps, at her best during a late-arriving scene where she officially has zero f*cks left, and it is terrifying to watch. Of course, some of those emotional beats Sennott nails definitely work thanks to her chemistry with costar Molly Gordon. Gordon has been finding small successes in a variety in comedies in recent years – she’s decent in Booksmart, pretty good in the oft-maligned Life of the Party, and excellent in Good Boys. Here, she plays the perfect “perfect girl,” standing out against Sennott’s Danielle as a symbol of jealousy – both professionally and personally. She’s an equally well-rounded, fascinating character, and I loved watching these two onscreen together.
In terms of the attendees of the shiva, each and every cast member gets a chance to shine. This of course means the incredible character actors Fred Melamed and Polly Draper, who play Danielle’s naïve father and impeccably Jewish mother with pitch perfection, but it expands to each and every member of the New York Theatrical ensemble, including Cilda Shaur as Sheila, Glynis Bell as Katherine, Sondra James as Maureen, Deborah Offner as Ellie, and especially Jackie Hoffman as the manipulative Susan. And of course, I can’t forget Danny Deferrari and Dianna Agron, who round out the cast perfectly. Deferrari is really great at playing douchey and annoying while still remaining a three-dimensional character, but I really want to praise Agron, who has been a terrific actress all the way back to her days on Glee. Kim could be such a one-dimensional role, b*tchy and condescending to the much more flustered Danielle. But Agron plays the role with such pathos and hurt, with a clear empathy, agony, and self-doubt lying beneath her seemingly-perfect exterior. Hopefully this role opens the door to bigger opportunities for her in the future.
Shiva Baby is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve seen in a long time. Emma Seligman’s voice just screams “future star,” the way Elaine May’s once did with A New Leaf, or the Coens’ once did with Blood Simple. I’m actually a little bit angry – there is no way anyone should be this talented and assured a director at the age of 24. And yet, here it is: a perfect blend of comedy, horror, and drama that isn’t just perfectly written and staged; it actually has something to say. It’s the millennial satire society deserves, the same way Reality Bites tried to capture Gen X and The Graduate captured the Boomers. It is, in short, a great film, and one you don’t want to miss.
Shiva Baby will be available in select theaters and on VOD starting this Friday, April 2nd