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Review: 'Shiva Baby' a Witty, Queer Jewish Comedy

by Megan Kearns
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 2, 2021
'Shiva Baby'
'Shiva Baby'  (Source:Utopia)

Funerals are obviously places of mourning and sadness, but they also reveal a lot about people's lives. Written and directed by Emma Seligman in her directorial debut, "Shiva Baby" stars Rachel Sennott as Danielle, a bisexual Jewish woman about to graduate college who attends a shiva with her parents (Polly Draper, Fred Melamed). She runs into her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari) (no one else knows she's a sex worker) and her ex, Maya (Molly Gordon).

Premiering at 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival, "Shiva Baby" is a witty, sharply written character study injected with acerbic dialogue. Brimming with awkward, cringe-inducing humor, it made me squirm. You feel what Danielle feels. Seligman, a bi Jewish woman, infuses a tremendous amount of depth and comedy into the tight runtime.

At the shiva, Danielle (who doesn't know who died when she arrives) discovers Max is married with a baby, and both his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and baby arrive. These revelations rattle her carefully crafted world.

"Shiva Baby" features stellar performances from the entire cast. Each lively character feels like a fully developed, real person. The feature is based on Seligman's 2018 short film of the same name; Sennott reprises her role as Danielle and gives a wonderful performance. She excellently vacillates between frustrating impulsivity, snarky humor, and vulnerable sensitivity. She makes mistakes, but who hasn't? Danielle lies to Max about her plans, to Maya about attending the funeral service, and about having a babysitting job rather than being a sex worker, which, for her, is about power. On the verge of graduation, Danielle exists in liminality, not quite firmly entrenched in adulthood. Chameleonic and evasive, she doesn't know what she wants for her future.

Polly Draper masterfully portrays Debbie, Danielle's vibrant, funny, frank, and loving mother, in one of my favorite supporting performances of the year (so far). Danielle wants independence but also craves her parents' validation. In an alarmingly tender moment, Danielle asks her mom (so vulnerably I could cry) if she's disappointed in her.

Set almost entirely in one location, "Shiva Baby" uses the house's confined space to full advantage to induce dread. The film brilliantly incorporates horror genre elements (similar to the drama "Krisha") in its score, cinematography, and editing to heighten tension and evoke claustrophobic foreboding. The fantastic score comprises plucking strings and high-pitched whines. The camera follows Danielle as she races through the house, swerving between people thwarting her. Quick-cut edits intensify angst. People in slow motion look almost monstrous. Dim lighting casts ominous shadows on faces.

Throughout the film, people bombard Danielle with comments and questions on who she's dating, her career goals, and weight. She loses her phone, accidentally cuts herself, and has coffee accidentally spilled on her. Danielle anxiously piles food onto her plate, then removes it. As she overhears a conversation between her parents and Max about his wife, Danielle eats a bagel with lox, despite being vegetarian. Danielle feels suffocated; her disparate worlds are colliding.

From a tentative wave hello to their awkward first conversation at a buffet table, it's immediately clear Danielle and Maya share a history and unresolved hurt. Their interactions vacillate from hostile and antagonistic to affectionate and tender.

Danielle's mom calls her relationship with Maya "experimenting," which is her perspective on every bi person, according to Danielle. Danielle's mom supports her financially and emotionally, but she isn't fully supportive of Danielle's bisexuality, which is incredibly hurtful, despite how she thinks she's "open-minded" about queerness. While everyone at shiva seems to know Danielle and Maya were a couple in high school, they also diminish Danielle's bisexuality, brushing aside the notion of her dating anyone besides a man. Sadly, bi-erasure and biphobia are all too common.

As a bi woman, I love to see bi representation. While it might initially seem to perpetuate the bi trope of a flaky woman, the film transcends that trope through its nuanced characterization of Danielle. While delving into obstacles bi people face, the film isn't solely about Danielle's queerness, which is incredibly refreshing. "Shiva Baby" is a confident, funny, well-crafted film about a woman unsure about her path in the world.

"Shiva Baby" is now available on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome

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