You know you're at a Jewish family gathering when overbearing relatives ask you about your weight, your grades, and your love life as if they’re asking about the weather. Bubbies bicker with zaydes, nosy aunts gossip in the corner, and you often find yourself wondering, “Wait ... how am I related to that guy again?” Oh, right. He’s your uncle’s wife’s mother’s cousin’s son.
In her debut feature, Shiva Baby, writer and producer Emma Seligman throws an ex–girlfriend and sugar daddy in the mix to complete the party. In the film, Seligman expertly captures the increasingly claustrophobic nature of these gatherings, and, oy vey—it’s an experience.
Spoiler alert: For best results and optimal schvitzing, watch the film before you continue reading.
Shiva Baby begins with protagonist Danielle, played by Rachel Sennott, a Columbia senior studying gender and feminism, finishing up a session with her sugar daddy, Max, played by Danny Deferrari. Danielle leaves in a hurry in order to meet her parents at a “shiva”—a Jewish mourning ritual—for a distant relative. An already awkward situation turns even more tense when her ex–girlfriend Maya, played by Molly Gordon, flaunts her acceptance to law school and her sugar daddy makes an appearance at the shiva. When you think things can’t get worse, they do—sugar daddy Max is married, much to Danielle's surprise. To a non–Jew. With a baby.
The music playing in the background of the film as Danielle wanders aimlessly around the house is reminiscent of an A24 horror film—and the plot doesn't stray far from one either. You watch with bated breath as Danielle’s sanity unravels, shit repeatedly hitting the fan. You’re not necessarily rooting for her—she’s not the most likable protagonist—but her lack of self confidence engenders audience sympathy. Danielle may exert a great deal of chutzpah, but you’re begging for her to just get out of the house so you can have a sigh of relief. Dramatic irony also plays a role, as only the audience knows Danielle's secret, and her constant slip–ups add to the suspense.
Seligman manages to craft a script so natural, it reads like a realistic nightmare. Her close friendship with Sennott contributes to the arresting tone of the film. The two met as students at New York University, where Seligman actually submitted a short version of Shiva Baby, also starring Sennott, as her thesis film in the spring of 2017. Sennott was so encouraging about the short on set that Seligman continually sent her drafts as she worked on the full–length feature.
The masterful execution of the film is not a result of time and money—but rather a lack of both. According to Seligman, the process was both creative and logistical. The amateur crew scrambled to find funding, and Seligman cites the experience as one of the hardest things she’ll ever do. She ultimately chose to shoot in one location and limit the story to an afternoon for the sake of budget, and much of the staging was developed to accommodate actors’ busy schedules. On set, producers pieced the puzzle together: “Okay, well, we don’t have Molly [Gordon] that day, so we can’t see into that room because technically she should be in that room. So you’re going to have to change the angle.”
Seligman also shared that the film created a collaborative environment, with cast and crew working together to brainstorm and troubleshoot. Seligman and Sennott developed Danielle’s character alongside the producers and cinematographers, amplifying the dynamic anxiety that keeps viewers engaged throughout.
The authenticity of the film comes from the fact that both Seligman and Sennott relate to the story. Seligman defines herself, as she defines Danielle, as “messy women,” and Sennott’s digital footprint does the same.
Plus, any Jewish teen or young adult will tell you that the suffocating feeling of the film is far too real: It’s impossible to avoid anyone at a Jewish gathering, whether it’s a shiva or a simcha. The stress is ever–present even without a sexy, secret love triangle.
Sennott says she’s glad Shiva Baby gave viewers a stress attack. That’s the point. It's an adrenaline trip from start to finish, and Seligman's scrappy resourcefulness lends itself to this masterpiece.