'Shiva Baby' Turns a Stressful Family Gathering into a Relatable Coming-of-Age Story

Directed by Emma Seligman

Starring Rachel Sennott, Danny Deferrari, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed

BY Heather Taylor-SinghPublished Mar 31, 2021

Anxiety can sneak up on you when you least expect it. Your head starts spinning, you feel sweaty in way too many places, and focusing on anything is nearly impossible. Emotions are heightened when you're surrounded by close friends and family with no chance of escaping, and things keep going humorously wrong. Emma Seligman's debut feature film, Shiva Baby, captures the essence of sheer panic with the right amount of drama and comedy.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is on the verge of graduating from NYU with no clear future plans, and she's also a sugar baby. While at a shiva, a Jewish tradition for mourning someone's death, she unexpectedly runs into her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari) and his family, her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and many pesky family members who can't stop asking about Danielle's future. The film takes place over one afternoon in one house, where chaos quickly ensues, as the shiva starts to feel like any other stressful family function.

Shiva Baby is an extension of Seligman's eight-minute short film (which was her thesis back in university). While it can be challenging to take a compact idea and expand it into a feature, Seligman manages to create an uneasy world that lasts, consistently challenging the idea of comfort. As the afternoon unfolds, secrets are unravelled and no amount of lox can save Danielle. Neurotic energy fills the space as her apprehensive behaviour and the chatter of relatives intensifies. Danielle's most fearful moments are matched with an eerie score of piano plinking and plucked strings. The home becomes claustrophobic and any chance of air is sucked out.

While the film is carried by its anxious tone, there are lighter moments to break up the tension, from the constant scolding by Danielle's mom, Debbie (Polly Draper), to the playful encounters between Danielle and Maya. Through Seligman's direction, the film feels self-aware and the tense-yet-humourous scenes emphasize the chaotic, uncomfortable nature of being trapped at a family event.

Throughout its runtime, the film also tackles the insecurities of being a woman and owning one's sexuality. Danielle's sugaring might seem confusing to outside perspectives, but it's the power that she craves. The dominance and control she gains from moments with men like Max helps combat her feelings of inadequacy. But when she has to deal with reality, she constantly has to prove herself. Even her relationship with Maya was labelled as a "phase." The film subtly comments on the dated conversation around society's pressure for young women to have their futures figured out and live a more traditional life.

Developing a sense of self isn't easy, and the film binds the inevitability of adulthood with the anxiety of its outcome. It will make you want to avoid family gatherings and hide from your insecurities, but Shiva Baby solidifies its spot as one of the most relatable coming-of-age films in recent years.

Shiva Baby is available to stream on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and will be available in select theatres and VOD on April 2.

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