Danielle, the main protagonist of the indie film “Shiva Baby,” has had enough. The past 70 or so minutes have been some of her most humiliating. Her sugar daddy’s fiancée has called her out, she just broke an expensive vase and the question of her future remains a lingering threat. At the ripe age of 21, she has a nervous breakdown in the middle of a funeral service — tough stuff.
“Shiva Baby” is criminally underseen. First released last year, it has developed a sufficient cult following in the chambers of Film Twitter. Directed by Emma Seligman and based on her short of the same name, the film centers upon a bisexual Jewish woman who encounters her sugar daddy, Max, at a shiva. The tension and humiliation only escalate from there, as she contends with family bickering, exes and more.
The film packs plenty of thrill in its brisk run time, but what sticks out is its thematic resonance. It comes from a particular place that speaks to my generation: one of cynicism. It is one of the few films that successfully represents the current plight of Generation Z, which faces an uncertain future.
My generation is in crisis. They were born during 9/11, raised during the Great Recession and now came of age during a global pandemic. They have endured many crises that should have been once in a lifetime. In addition, many are concerned over their education, with about a quarter considering it a barrier to economic mobility. Finally, they fear the future, a fear compounded by COVID-19 and the ominous threat of climate change. From this fear springs nihilism and cynicism, a complex set of emotions “Shiva Baby” portrays in multiple ways.
This is embodied in part by the lead, Danielle, a pessimist who acts on her own accord. In other words, she is the vanguard for the Gen Z crisis. She feels a constant need for control, trying to deflect relatives’ questions all while maintaining composure. She fights back against criticism, perhaps to secure confidence in her unstable liberal arts education. She acts out.
For example, rather than avoiding Max after encountering him, Danielle sends him a nude from the family bathroom. I was personally unsure of why she made such a spontaneous horrible decision. But, yet again, I have made similar spontaneous horrible decisions. They were done out of attention or for my “security.”
Ultimately, Danielle represents Zoomers’ need for control and attention in an increasingly apathetic world. Rachel Sennott’s excellent performance sells this. She delivers her lines with an air of dry humor. Her emotional withdrawal foreshadows a future explosion, which was cited in the beginning. She balances Gen Z’s simultaneous tendency to both act out and disengage. This is a fragile juxtaposition built on what the world needs of them — something for which they are not at all prepared.
To continue, Generation Z’s concerns are frequently rejected by older generations. They may not comprehend the circumstances of their children or grandchildren, as life seemed easier in the 20th century. These older folks appear throughout “Shiva Baby.” For example, Danielle’s parents, while loving, poke fun at her career prospects, discounting the job potential of social justice work. Her conversations with relatives are hostile, filmed like an interrogation scene in a detective film. Extreme close-ups and frantic editing emphasize that the family gathering is not a safe space.
The film draws a clear line between adults and youth, a point of dissociation or apathy. This line isolates Zoomers and pushes them toward further cynicism. Furthermore, the interrogation of Danielle regarding her future epitomizes the expectations of elders. My generation is inheriting a broken world, and with great expectation comes great competition to meet it.
Danielle’s competition appears in the form of Maya, her family friend — and her ex-girlfriend. Whereas Danielle is clueless, Maya knows all the answers, graduating college with a path to law school. She is the pride of their social circle. Maya’s lifestyle and career success inspire Danielle’s loathing. They feud and bicker like siblings, trying to one-up the other.
The viewer also encounters Kim Beckett, Max’s fiancée. Pretty and refined, she is a career woman like Maya. She holds a distinctive tension with Danielle throughout the film. The tension manifests in Kim’s constantly crying baby, which also represents Danielle’s fragile state of mind. Danielle mocks Kim’s “girl boss” career as a means of deflection, knowing that the young mother holds the greater power. Gen Z struggles disproportionately with mental health. As a result, they tend to lash out and be wary of others. Danielle is but one example of this.
Ultimately, “Shiva Baby” portrays Generation Z in its internal and external turmoil and in the expectations and competition it faces. The situation for both them and Danielle seems bleak, but there’s room for optimism. After her breakdown, Danielle and her family leave the funeral. In comic fashion, the group must crowd in a car with both Maya and Max’s family. Danielle cannot catch a break. However, amid this comic horror, Danielle finds comfort in Maya, who holds her hand throughout the ride. They both smile. It’s not all bad.
Maya and Danielle’s reconciliation amid a stressful situation is an act of kindness or outreach. Amid all of Gen Z’s struggles and faults, they can represent humanity at its most connected, with the rise of social media like Twitter and TikTok allowing unprecedented exchange in their viewpoints. They can honestly discuss their mental health and fear for the future, bringing awareness where previous generations could not. Collaboration on these issues is essential. Like they say in a hallmark of Gen Z culture: “We’re all in this together.”
Director Seligman suggests that amid all their trauma, young people can find comfort and solidarity in one another. Her film serves as a microcosm of a young generation coming of age, with all the fear associated. The process is often bleak or darkly comic, feeling like a horror film at points. There is going to be plenty of division and depression. However, at the very end, they will be uplifted.