Shiva Baby (2020)

June 4th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Emma Seligman; Cast: Rachel Sennott, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron; USA 2020, 77min.

Rachel Sennott is the star turn in Emma Seligman’s inspired featured debut Shiva Baby. She is Danielle, a Jewish woman caught up in her parents’ plans to get her a husband – or at least a job – in this hilarious comedy.

During happier times we see Danielle in bed with her sugar daddy, Max (Deferrari), who will save her from the woes the world has in stall for her. But that was then. A Jewish funeral get-together (Shiva) provides an ideal networking opportunity for the family’s machinations, never mind that one of their loved ones has actually died.

So parents Debbie (Draper) and Joel (Melamed) head off to the Shiva, Danielle making a last unsuccessful attempt to learn the name of the deceased. Still not having made her way in the right circles, her parents are well aware of the seriousness of the task that lies ahead: Danielle is earning a pittance as a ‘babysitter’ but the fruits of her labours seem to stem from another, more dubious source. Professional ambitions are still unclear university-wise, and her parents are covering all the bills.

Friendships are fraught – she had a stormy relationship with Maya (Gordon) who is also at the Shiva. Debbie warns her daughter “not to experiment today”. But before Danielle has time to internalise this parental guidance and critique (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way”), enter Max, followed by his wife Kim (Agron) and baby daughter Rose. The lovers can’t agree on their opening gambit, “where did the two of you meet”, finally settling for ‘schul’ (the synagogue). It soon turns out Kim is the major breadwinner in the family, and she carps half-jokingly about her husband’s penchant for expensive restaurants.

Meanwhile, Daneille’s parents have cornered Max in the hope of an internship for their daughter. Kim joins the conversation, expressing the need for a babysitter – Debbie praising her daughter’s (non-existent) experience. Danielle mislays her ‘phone number in the bathroom, having sent Max a rather daring selfie. Maya finds the phone but promises to keep schtum: “I don’t want your parents to know their daughter is a whore.” After much bickering and desert-guzzling, nervous exhaustion finally takes over as furtive hands find each other in the back of a crammed car.

Seligman gets away with her not very likeable heroine in a mishmash of sharp-elbowed characters trying to get into pole position on the back of each other. Danielle hasn’t the slightest idea what she wants from life – apart from not ending up like the rest of the Shiva crowd. Her only virtue is a foggy idea about feminism – something that doesn’t follow through in her relationship with Maya.

DoP Maria Rusche takes her lead from Robert Altman in crowd scenes that zero in on the individual players, a bleached-out aesthetic echoing Danielle’s efforts to stay sane. Editor Hannah A. Park keeps the encounters lined up, the interplay amusing and insightful. Shiva Baby is funny, but the humour is as sharp as the lemons the characters chew on, Seligman bringing the curtain down while the going’s still good. AS

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