Nearing graduation with no prospects, no plans, and least of all no actual major, Shiva Baby’s protagonist, Danielle spends the film’s sly 70 minutes full of adolescent panic.
Set almost entirely in the claustrophobic setting of a shiva (a Jewish funeral service) for a woman with a vague connection to the family, Shiva Baby surrounds Danielle with her relatives, her opinion-rife local Jewish community, her secret sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), his family, and her best friend/ex-girlfriend Maya (Booksmart’s Molly Gordon). For each of these people, Danielle (played by stand-up comedian Rachel Sennott, in a performance both wonderfully awkward and assured) embodies a different role in their lives, trying desperately to hold up many facades until she reaches a literal breaking point. Based on writer-director Emma Seligman’s eponymous SXSW qualifying 2018 short film, her feature takes a comical premise and turns it into an affecting examination of the pressures, anxieties and insecurities of young womanhood.
Though Shiva Baby begins with an unconvincing orgasm to set up Danielle’s sugar relationship, the scene that follows truly sets the tone for the film. In a calm before the storm, Danielle stands at the family car with her parents and asks her mother Debbie (Polly Draper, in a role admittedly similar to her turn as the mother to Jenny Slate’s Donna in 2015’s Obvious Child, but no less excellent) what her “soundbite” is. It’s a moment so familiar, especially for students, before any family event: figuring out how to sound impressive in anticipation of the barrage of questions from prying relatives. Danielle and her parents settle on a vague, but not entirely implausible spiel for Danielle to deliver: focusing on finishing finals with a couple job interviews lined up.
Thus the thinly veiled lies begin to spin, each one just close enough to the truth that if Danielle repeats them enough, eventually, hopefully, something will come of it. Max thinks he’s helping her fund her way through law school (she’s not in law school, but Maya will be); her parents think she’s a babysitter (well, she’s a baby-something); everyone Danielle stumbles into a conversation with is only half convinced about her degree which allows her to build her own major in business, or gender, or… something (“Gender business”, she clumsily describes at one point). Meanwhile, she dodges even more questions about her post-grad plans, whether she has a boyfriend, and comments made about why she is so skinny.
[Who gives older women the right to squeeze your waist so much? This detail is always captured in awkward close-ups, not only emphasising the action, and how often Danielle is subject to it, but also the lack of boundaries there are in such a ‘tight-knit’ community.]
Danielle rarely stays in one place for long, and Maria Rusche’s camera follows her weaving and dodging throughout the house. In a year where we are all confined to our homes, estranged from crowded rooms of pleasantries, small talk, and nosy family members, Shiva Baby feels pointedly claustrophobic. This is not only because of the single-location setting (sharing an insular tone with the powderkeg dinner of Sally Potter’s The Party (2017), but how the film expertly creates a continued sense of the inability to escape. Moments focus on Danielle’s face in the center of the frame as she stares ahead and struggles to calm herself, while characters such as her mother have loud gossipy conversations overtop of her. With the camera kept close and unwavering, Sennott’s performance shines. Every emotion she feels — including those she tries to conceal — play out on her face. In these moments, Ariel Marx’s score is as highly strung as the film’s energy: all plucked strings and tremeloes.
Comparison is the thief of joy. Danielle desperately tries to avoid Maya — most likely because her stammering and uncertainty pales in comparison to Maya’s plans of law school and composed air, giving off the appearance that she does have her life together. However, like a magnet, Maya seeks out Danielle anyway. Sennott and Gordon have excellent chemistry, making their moments together the most compelling. They bicker about their prom night and the dead corsage Danielle gave to Maya; the camera catches the way their eyes watch each other from across the room. One scene beginning with the pair cleaning up a child’s puke for the carpet is filled with slight sexual tension and faint memories of closeness. There is intimacy in their every action, as well as a simmering tension which eventually leads to them admitting how much they miss each other and sweet, breathless reunion kisses. Maya is also the one to notice how Danielle cannot take her eyes off of Max’s wife, Kim. Played by Diana Agron with a steeliness behind her eyes which echoes her role as Quinn Fabray in Glee (2009–15), Kim holds onto the need to maintain an image of happy family and perfection. Because Danielle is still being evasive, and Maya doesn’t know about her friend’s sugar relationship, she taunts her by commenting on how beautiful Kim is. It’s not to make Danielle jealous, but in an attempt to get Danielle to actually admit to something that’s real. However, Maya has it wrong. It isn’t Kim whom Danielle desires, but what Kim has.
Danielle’s true feelings for her sugar daddy are undefined. Yet, it’s not really her feelings for Max which are thrown through a loop at all. Rather, Danielle’s sexual prowess is in question: a few topless photos she sends hastily from the bathroom leaves a lot to be desired, and a secret rendezvous proposition for a blowjob upstairs is softly rejected by Max. So yeah, being in the presence of Max’s stunning “Shiska Princess” (non-Jewish) wife just adds to the feelings of inadequacy Danielle is feeling (both academically and sexually) and struggling to work through.
[A moment which lives in my mind: Danielle, exhausted and anxious, desperately asks her mother if she is disappointed in her. Debbie reacts in disbelief, but her reassurances are cut off when they are interrupted by a request to help move some chairs.]
All the odds and anxieties stack up against Danielle, until it gets too much. Sitting hopelessly on the floor, surrounded by broken glass from a vase she had knocked over, she falls apart, her exhaustion brimming over into heaving sobs. Crying at a shiva shouldn’t be entirely unexpected, but this is different. The camera keeps its distance, observing much like the wall of people standing around the room, staring, as Danielle sobs into her mother’s shoulder. She finally submits to the overwhelming fear of not knowing what she’s doing with her life, and the uncertainty of her future.
Young adulthood is full of so much uncertainty and judgement. You are expected to have all the answers, but it doesn’t really matter, because everyone will offer you their opinion anyway. Having a sugar daddy, Danielle reveals, was something she could do which offered her power, and to feel appreciated; a way to control her sexuality. But even this, something she had for herself, shatters and becomes too real against the backdrop of her worlds colliding.
These scenes were familiar to me — though Shiva Baby embeds itself with the complexity of cultural and religious pressures, it also contains universal experiences and emotions I know well. After weeks of pushing my emotions away into a corner where I cannot see them, convincing everyone “I’m handling everything quite well, actually”, eventually I reached my own breaking point too. I found myself in a similar position as Danielle: on the floor, sobbing, overwhelmed about lack of prospects, the future, not knowing I’m doing. To see this image reflected a week later in Shiva Baby lends a lot to appreciate.
There is a lot to admire about Seligman’s film, which at first glance reads like a “lol what if this happened” prompt, simple in premise and style, but it later surprised me in how well she weaved into it a tale of adolescent panic and uncertainty. Nothing will remind you of how little you have it together like a family gathering. In the final moments, Danielle is reminded of her support system, and has Maya’s hand to hold. Life is overwhelming, but we’re doing our best. We’ll be okay.
Shiva Baby screens as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival from 6–23 August.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an honours thesis on girlhood on screen, and has written for Vogue Australia, Junkee, The Big Issue, Senses of Cinema and more. Follow her at @theclairencew.