Emma Seligman’s debut crawls up the spine with plenty of darkly comic anxiety.
“Does Danielle want to go to law school or grad school?” An almost casual question to her mother, the truth is, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) has no idea where she’s going – so she joins her family for a shiva. “Abby,” her “uncle’s second wife’s sister” has passed; Danielle takes a break from Manhattan and her final college finals to see her parents and their suburban Jewish community. Confined to the unending funeral service, Shiva Baby understands how just how terrifying the question “what are you doing next?” can ring in one’s ears.
In other words, writer/director Emma Seligman’s debut locates the universal in its specific, Gen-Z-Bisexual-New-York-Jewish-woman milieu. Then again, as another Ashkenazi humanities major currently starring down the barrel of post-grad uncertainty, I couldn’t help but appreciate Danielle’s plight. In a fantastic lead performance, Sennott deftly expresses her character’s nervous confusion, her anxiety over whether or not she’s good enough yet – and if not now, then when?
Above the creaking strings of Ariel Marx’s nail-biting score, a chorus of voices fill the room. Among the mourners, there are her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), and Maya (Molly Gordon), and Max (Danny Deferrari), Danielle’s ex-girlfriend and sugar daddy, respectively. So much of Shiva Baby’s appeal comes from plunging into this crucible of cringe, a pseudo-sequel to the coming-of-age movie Danielle could’ve starred in, but has now outgrown. The cast fills in any gaps left by the relatively short, single-location script – there’s not a single bad performance in the film.
Still, Shiva Baby can be excruciating. As Danielle’s relationships crash into each other under the unflinching gaze of her neighbors and family friends, the awkward tension can be unbearable. Instead of one slow burn, Seligman structures her film around a series of crescendos, an escalating series of breaking points that’ll have you gasping for breath. Like the Safdie brothers, Seligman has an affinity for claustrophobic close-ups, but the filmmaker also pulls us into Danielle’s (panicked) perspective through woozy expressionist lighting shifts and overheard conversations staged in a single, crowded shot.
Shiva Baby also recalls the recent airless Israeli rom-com The Wedding Plan – it feels like we’re in the midst of a new wave of Jewish filmmakers intentionally exploring stress. While stuff like Godzilla vs. Kong is usually held up as the pinnacle of in-theater entertainment, the suffocating aesthetic on display here would benefit just as much. It’s not all unease though: we see the genuine connection Danielle shares with her Mom and Molly, relationships that can be complicated and abrasive, but not really toxic.
Sennott is the glue holding this thing together, her raw vulnerability unspooling in real-time. Danielle’s immaturity is never alienating, and the actress has a tight grasp on the specific moment Seligman is capturing here. Sennott’s performance allows the filmmaking to take more ambitious risks – and visa-versa. There are a few stumbles: the visual vocabulary’s variation can verge on inconsistent, and Danielle’s relationship with her father feels ignored (or left off the hook) when we get such a good sense of all the other dynamics around her.
But clearly, this is an exceptional debut for Seligman and Sennott. That actor and filmmaker have such clear paths forward is a bit ironic, as it runs counter to Shiva Baby’s deepest truth: Maybe it’s ok that Danielle isn’t going to grad school or law school. Maybe it’s ok that she doesn’t have it all figured out yet.
Shiva Baby unloads its anxieties on you with thrilling vulnerability on demand (and on Music Box Direct) April 2nd.