Shiva Baby takes place during a Shiva (a memorial service after a Jewish funeral) where Danielle, a directionless soon-to-be university graduate, is surprised to find herself amongst not only her ambitious ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) but also her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) and, surprise! his non-Jewish wife (Dianna Agron) and their baby, neither of whom she knew existed.
The story, which isn't so much a story as the slow reckoning of Danielle's identity, unravels under the claustrophobic and omnipresent eye of her parents, as well as the whole gang of Jewish friends and family. Set to a horror-inspired score, complete with a screaming infant, Shiva Baby is a smorgasbord of genre that shouldn't work, but does.
The feature-length version was adapted from Emma Seligman's own 2018 short film of the same name, and sometimes you can feel the movie losing breath as it fights for its feature-length run time. However, you could also argue that the repeated beats, each time slightly more stressful than the last, provide precisely the atmosphere Seligman was trying to achieve: a relentless, anxiety-inducing nightmare trip.
As Danielle, stand-up comedian Rachel Sennott nails the precise kind of millennial angst that many are dealing with. That this also happens to overlap in a lot of places with the particular kind of Jewish tsuris is a happy coincidence for both the viewers and Sennott.
She manages to be funny in the face of an oppressive, almost suffocating anxiety. That she's flanked by bonafide stars Fred Melamed and Polly Draper as her parents helps, of course. To their roles as the Roth-ian stereotypes of Jewish parents, they add a charming levity.
What's perhaps most moving about Shiva Baby is that it earns its final moments. Danielle navigates her listlessness both internally and externally, as she's ping-ponged from room to room, each time worse than the last so when she finally comes out, you can breathe deeply with her.
The physical closeness of the space contributes to the second-hand claustrophobia the viewer experiences, much like the drowning-pilot scene in Dunkirk. You want to hurry Danielle into the next free room only to find it's already full and everyone is staring at you. At her. No, at you!
This is what Shiva Baby does so brilliantly. It puts you in Danielle's shoes without you being aware that's what's happening. It does so without manipulating you and allows you to fully immerse yourself in the cringe-inducing horror that is navigating young adulthood.
Funerals have become something of a trope amongst filmmakers, but it's rare to see a Shiva. In Shiva Baby, the Jewishness is laced into the specific bisexual experience, and this makes it a stand-out movie.
The most moving thing about this is that we often see Christianity and heterosexuality as neutral and relatable lenses, anything else is an 'other', something to struggle through.
Shiva Baby almost takes all that for granted, and by putting you so firmly in the middle of this godawful funeral, you as a viewer simply accept that this is the norm, this is the neutral space in which Danielle is flailing and floundering (a schlimazel, someone chronically unlucky). This perennial suffering and existential questioning is a fundamental part of Jewish identity, and Seligman has the prescience to explore how perfectly it also mirrors the millennial experience.
It is a promising start for its auteur as well as its star, and we can't wait to see what they'll do next.
How to watch Shiva Baby online
Shiva Baby is obviously worth watching. If you're in the USA, you'll have had the opportunity to see it in cinemas already. However, if you missed it (which given the ongoing health situation is understandable), you can still watch it on Amazon Prime Video for $4.99.
There is a seven-day free trial, and after that, it's £9.99 per month – so if you only want to watch Shiva Baby, make sure to set your calendar to cancel that trial.
Shiva Baby is available to watch on MUBI, and via Amazon Prime.
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