Directed by: Emma Seligman. Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper. Runtime: 1h 17 min. This film played at this past weekend’s Reel Love Film Festival as the festival’s closing night film on Feb. 14, 2021.
Minor spoilers follow.
Shiva Baby follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student who is put into a unique position when, while at a Jewish funeral service with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), runs into her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari).
Written and directed by Emma Seligman in her feature directorial debut (film is based on her 2018 short of the same name), the film’s premise alone makes me smile because of the sheer creativity of it. However, I did not realize how stressful this premise could be. Just imagine your most embarrassing moment and dial it up to 100 and you still don’t have quite the tension of this scenario.
Ariel Marx’s score is integral to creating this anxiety and angst. Of course, Sennott’s performance portrays this perfectly too, as she goes between dry humour, happiness and extreme stress. She tries to be nice to her relatives and listen while her mind is entirely somewhere else. She acts so well with her eyes as she steals glances of Max and the secrets he’s brought (cycling between jealousy, shame, heartbreak). The scene where she eats a bagel and listens to Max chat with her parents, and she learns Max is married with a kid is a game-changer.
The film is so intimately shot, too (with cinematography by Maria Rusche) and Seligman’s shots feel so immersive, especially as we watch a close-up shot of Danielle and others as she’s close to a panic attack as is sweating bullets. When she snaps to break out of this shot, it’s so cool to see the switch in colours of how we saw this situation and what the Shiva really looks like. It’s claustrophobic and great, as is a moment where someone corners Danielle when she’s at her most anxious. This is when it clicked for me that this is partly such a relatable film of the sheer terror and anxiety of being cornered by relatives you haven’t seen for years and being judged completely, all at a funeral of someone you barely knew. I desperately want to see what this team would do with a horror film, because they make it feel like a horror situation from Danielle’s perspective as we really get into her character.
Shiva Baby is not horror and I don’t mean to create a disservice by making it seem too stressful, because it’s also layered and hilarious. This hilarity comes from herself and her decisions being judged, especially with almost everyone wondering if Danielle has an eating disorder.
“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps and not in a good way,” Danielle’s mom, Debbie (Polly Draper), tells her. Draper is a scene-stealer as the mom, too, as is Fred Melamed as Danielle’s father Joel. A moment where Joel points to Max’s baby and says “that was you not too long ago” makes the situation so much funnier, and that’s a lot of Seligman’s humour where unknowing characters make the situation way worse for Danielle, funnier for us as the audience.
There’s such relatability, too, in her having to bend the truth about her schooling and say she has interviews lined up while everyone wonders if law school or grad school is next. She has no idea what she wants to do next in her life (something I really related to), as she merely studies gender studies in a unique program. “She doesn’t have a major, Mom, you make it up,” says Maya (Molly Gordon), Danielle’s childhood best friend and ex-girlfriend. “But you get a diploma, right?”
The pettiness in this dynamic between Danielle and Maya is sharp, but their chemistry is wonderful, too, especially when Maya has to decide between being angry or sympathetic when she starts cluing into Danielle’s behaviour. I love Molly Gordon’s acting and they are such a great pair and this becomes the connection I most enjoyed watching because it supplied some rare flashes of euphoria in the film.
About the tension again, it’s fascinating watch Danielle navigate this unique sugar shiva daddy situation. She seems to make mistakes that the audience will question but that’s part of her journey and it makes what she’s thinking unpredictable. She wants to destroy Max, but also has sympathy for his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron). There’s tension in this dynamic because Danielle holds the power, while the situation feels so frantic.
Rachel Sennott’s performance as Danielle is special and made Shiva Baby have a place in my heart. She has great emotional range and throughout her comedic delivery matched with Seligman’s writing is perfect. The dry humour’s best, especially when Danielle looks at someone showing their phots and Danielle says, “Wow, you’re at the Holocaust Museum, you look so happy.” The silence here is delightful.
Shiva Baby is incredible in structure and so entertaining. It’s one of those situational comedies where the situation gets worse throughout, and while I don’t always love those kinds of stories because the situations feel far-fetched, this premise is so believable. I adored this film. It’s so layered in character dynamics and dialogue; and there’s so much depth fit into 77 minutes. It’s a perfect runtime because it’s enough time with the characters in a situation this wild. I would love to see them again in a different situation down the road. Until then, I’ll happily re-watch this once it’s released in April.