Shiva Baby movie review: secrets, lies, and other adulting

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A wonder of emotional claustrophobia and narrative economy. Rachel Sennott is delightfully caustic in this painfully poignant, dryly funny portrait of a deeply awful moment of young adulthood.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
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Writer-director Emma Seligman’s feature debut is a one-location wonder of emotional claustrophobia that is beautifully suited to the narrative economy she deploys. My God. Spun out of her own short film of the same name, Shiva Baby is the painfully poignant, dryly funny tale of Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a directionless college student attending a New York City shiva — a sort of Jewish funeral wake — at the behest of her parents (Polly Draper [Jane Wants a Boyfriend, Obvious Child] and Fred Melamed [Passengers, Hail, Caesar!]), though she’s not even sure who is the deceased is. Did I say this was a one-location film? Actually, it’s two: the film opens with Danielle having noisy sex, at his apartment, with her older sugar-daddy lover, Max (Danny Deferrari)… who shows up at the shiva, too. Turns out he knows her father. Awkwardness all around!

Shiva Baby Danny Deferrari Fred Melamed
That awkward moment when your sugar daddy and your daddy daddy are both in your line of sight…

There’s a delicious horror-movie vibe to Danielle’s nonstop cringe here as she attempts to navigate that deeply awful moment of young adulthood when your parents — and all their friends and peers — are still treating you like a child even though you’re grown up (or are you?), and as you suddenly become aware of the secret hypocrisy of the overt “traditional,” “conservative” values you were raised in as they clash with the realities of adult life. What if the things you thought you were being so transgressive about, so rebellious in acting out, were just ordinary messy adulthood after all? What if there was generational solidarity to be found, maybe, once you recognize the common ground you have with your own peers, as Danielle might have with Maya (Molly Gordon: Good Boys, Booksmart), her former high-school girlfriend, who is on a much more approved path in life, if they can get past the expectations of their parents that are hanging over them?

Sennott is delightfully caustic, a cover for Danielle’s aching vulnerability, as she tries to cope with helicopter parenting to the Nth degree and a culture in which everyone is up in everybody’s business… or at least, they think they are. Powerful specificity here is also a powerful universality: I’m not Jewish, but I feel a lot of resonance with my own Irish-American New York City extended family here. And we all have to get over the speed bumps of late adolescence. Maybe you’ve never been to a shiva, but you’ve probably been here.

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Sat, Apr 03, 2021 6:38pm

I know the term sugar daddy has been around a long time, but has the phenomenon really exploded with college women today using one (or two) to pay for school?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Beowulf
Mon, Apr 05, 2021 4:45pm

You could try Google. This movie is just about one woman. It makes no pretense to be about any sort of trend.

Sat, Jun 05, 2021 5:24pm

I really loved the camera work and performances. Such a very claustrophobic film. The only thing that I found annoying was painting the wife as a competitor. I find if hard to believe a married woman would, upon realizing her husband is having a fling with a much younger woman, be so weirdly competitive and sadistic with that younger woman. That part rang false for me.

Still, a really well made debut.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  ellemnop70
Sun, Jun 06, 2021 11:18am

People deal with betrayal in different ways…