REVIEW: Shiva Baby (TIFF 2020)
Emma Seligman’s feature debut, which is based on her college short film project of the same name, is awkwardly claustrophobic and ridiculous in all the right ways. Shiva Baby confronts relevant fears that come with growing up along with the missteps that occur when trying to establish early-adulthood independence. Of course, not everyone runs into their current and former sexual flings at a gathering where all their family friends are stuffing their faces with bagels, but that’s the beauty of this 77 minute comedy.
Meet Danielle. She’s about to graduate college and has some interviews lined up. At least that’s what she’s supposed to say to all the people who ask her about her future at the shiva she’s attending. Her mother and father (Polly Draper, Fred Melamed) think she’s great but the side-eye stares of all the other middle-aged Jewish women in attendance tell Danielle otherwise. In addition, her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) with her perfect hair and perfect face is walking around, telling everyone about her law school acceptance. At least no one there knows about her side hussle sugar daddy, Max (Fred Melamed). You know, the guy that just walked in the door with the beautiful blonde wife and baby doll of a daughter. All of the main character’s worst fears manifest in a crowded little house where nosy personalities are supposed to be honoring whoever died. Yeah, Shiva Baby is a mess but this is the purpose.
This premise would not work without the talent of Rachel Sennott. She embodies Danielle so realistically it feels like this is a real-life documentary rather than a fictional dark-humored piece of cinema. Everything is seen through the main character’s perspective. This means the anxiety and pressure that are trapped inside of her mind have to be perfectly articulated in order for them to be understood by the viewer, without them being completely noticed by the other shiva attendees. Rachel as Danielle might be the best casting decision of the year.
While the cumbersome meeting of so many aspects of Danielle’s life is painfully intriguing, the stress fizzles out a little too early. This made it hard to keep interest in the final moments which are the most delicate and rewarding of the film but lack momentum because of the structure. This is most likely due to the writing and the need for one more dramatic beat in order for Danielle to hit her breaking point, pushing her even further than rock bottom.
Still, Shiva Baby is a great first feature which shows a bright future for Seligman. She has a message to share and is unafraid to be real, an attribute that audiences are hungry for with the current rollercoaster called life we all are stuck on. The most impressive thing about this film is its ability to be specific to this character with her Jewish family, the cultural nuances, and the personal touches, while also being universally representative.
There are so many individuals that are caught somewhere between fake adulthood and real adulthood who are just trying to figure it out. This uncomfortable limbo is rarely represented with many coming-of-age films focusing on the teenage years rather than the ‘legal adult but child at heart’ stage. The early 20s are a frustrating time where pseudo confidence and self-deprecating humor no longer satisfy the nagging existential dread, especially in regards to sexuality, self-confidence, and success.
“While writing, re-writing, shooting and editing this film, I have kept a mission statement on my desk that reads ‘I want other young women to feel heard in their insecurities that have been inflicted upon them,’” Seligman says, regarding Shiva Baby. This is evident in Danielle’s story which is just the first of many to expect from a new filmmaker who is breaking down the barriers in a male-dominated industry. I hope to see many more embarrassing tales about messy queer female characters who are trying to figure out how life works. Something tells me we are going to get many more successful projects like this one.