Shiva Baby Synopsis: Danielle (Rachel Sennott) attends a family shiva where she is accosted by her relatives, outshined by her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and face-to-face with her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) and his family. Based on a short film of the same name.
Returning home for family functions is never ideal, but rarely has this uncomfortably awkward rite of passage come to life like in writer/director Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby. In her big-screen adaptation of a deeply personal short film, Seligman exhibits her immense abilities in one of the year’s most assured films to date.
From the premise alone, one would not expect Shiva Baby to implement a visceral edge akin to sweaty thrillers like Uncut Gems, yet Seligman skillfully infuses her familiar premise with newfound vitality. Her intensely claustrophobic framing serves as a boisterous manifestation of Danielle’s bottled-up angst, with Seligman utilizing a melody of zooming quick pans and thundering score choices to depict the intense eyes of her judgemental family (the looming eyes of casual onlookers feels like a deafening Greek chorus).
Shiva Baby should honestly be showcased in film classes. Seligman’s effort displays just how much a few thoughtful techniques can morph a familiar interaction into something with pulse-pounding intensity. The alluring style aids Seligman’s all-too-real depictions of familial/cultural pressures, placing audiences right in Danielle’s shoes as she combats a wave of critiques from cloying members of her church.
It’s a sentiment that could feel very one-note in the wrong hands, but Seligman’s clever comedic flourishes give some much-needed sweetness to Danielle’s bitter experience. Seligman effortlessly draws laughs from her commonplace situations, often relaying the uncomfortable cat-and-mouse dialogue exchanges through the spectrum of her Jewish culture. Everything has a welcomed specificity to it, yet the whole experience still conveys a universalness that connects with audiences.
Shiva Baby isn’t only a breakout effort for its talented writer/director. Star Rachel Sennott grabs the audience’s interest from the opening frames, with her deft balance between dry wit and vulnerable emotive beats imbuing dimension into her persona (her deadpan facial expressions often speak volumes). Molly Gordon makes for a bright onscreen partner as Danielle’s ex-lover while the enclave of talented character actors brightens their archetype roles (Fred Melamed steals the show as Danielle’s eager father).
Shiva Baby is a true delight. Seligman’s film strikes a great balance between acerbic humor and revealing character beats, jumpstarting what should be the start of a wonderful career.