Comedy and Drama mix seamlessly in Emma Seligman's 'Shiva Baby'

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By Evelyn Heis, English Literature, Second Year

If you typically find family gatherings overwhelming, awkward and stressful, imagine bumping into your ex-girlfriend, your sugar daddy AND your sugar daddy’s wife and child, at the wake you’re attending. This is the reality for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), the protagonist of Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby (2020).

Adapted from her ten-minute short of the same name Emma Seligman has done a phenomenal job in directing, writing, and creating this award-winning, unparalleled comedy film. Though its filming began in 2019, the release date has been continuously delayed as a result of the pandemic, creating a huge amount of anticipation for Seligman’s feature directorial debut- which I must say, does not disappoint.

Shiva Baby does not hold back either. Despite the majority of the film taking place in a shiva (a seven-day Jewish mourning period observed at the home of the deceased), this film is jam-packed with drama- would it be a family gathering if it wasn't?- as it follows Danielle, a college student in her early twenties who has no clear-cut direction for her life.

You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps—and not in a good way.”

Unsure of what she wants to do post-grad, she arranges hook-ups with older men online as a means to earn some money and save up for ‘law school’ (though she is not actually going to law-school). In fact, the film commences with a brief, and kind-of awkward, sexual encounter between Danielle and her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari) minutes before she rushes to the shiva she’s attending with her parents.

Molly Gordon & Rachel Sennot - Courtesy of IMDB

Once at the shiva, she is ambushed by relatives and family friends who bombard her with intrusive questions about her future and comment on her appearance: “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps—and not in a good way.” Much of the comedy stems from Danielle’s overbearing family members looking to get her a job, repeatedly telling her to eat, and assuming that she is anorexic when she doesn’t have a cream-cheese bagel in her hand. --

As a Latina, I can relate to being force fed extra portions by my grandma- and it is the universality of these familiar customs that work so well in providing comedy, as you don’t have to be Jewish to understand the nature of the film—

Accompanied by the shrieking sound of violins, the piercing cry of her sugar daddy’s baby and claustrophobic close-up, the anxiety felt by Danielle at this shiva is shared and soon enough becomes the audience’s anxiety. I found myself sitting at the edge of my seat the entire time and I would even go as far as saying that this film is more anxiety-inducing than the Safdie brother’s Uncut Gems (2019). Seligman has done an incredible job in synthesising the genre of comedy with an almost horror-like, anxiety-inducing undertone.

Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennot & Molly Draper - Courtesy of IMDB

Amidst the comically absurd situation, one involving the appearance of her aforementioned sugar-daddy and his family, and having to witness Danielle desperately scramble to cover up her tracks, there is a considerable amount of representation and relatability that helps make the film such a huge success.

Rachel Sennott captures Danielle’s inner turmoil remarkably well, from the pressure of not knowing what to do with her future, felt by many millennials and gen-zs, with the struggles she has as a bisexual, Jewish woman- much like the director Emma Seligman, on whom Danielle is loosely based on.

Shiva Baby (2020) refreshingly portrays three-dimensional characters with realistic struggles within an inclusive, Jewish backdrop. Seligman provides a direct insight into the customs of her religion, perpetuating positive representations for Jewish people in cinema, while promoting female solidarity and empowerment through her messy, yet relatable, female lead.

Featured Image: IMDB


Have you seen Shiva Baby yet? It's available on MUBI now!

AUTHOR

Evelyn Heis

Columnist for the Film&Tv section of the Epigram.