“Shiva Baby” is writer-director Emma Seligman’s feature debut. Based on a short that Seligman directed while still at film school, “Shiva Baby” is an anxiety-inducing comedy about a young woman who attends a shiva — a Jewish post-funeral service — and has an incredibly chaotic and panic-filled time.
The movie begins with Danielle, played by Rachel Sennot, as she goes from an appointment with her sugar daddy to a shiva with family and friends. She goes to the service to please her parents, which becomes clear when she asks her mother who the shiva is for. Her parents, played by Polly Draper and Fred Melamed, mean well, but they continually issue statements that annoy and embarrass a rapidly crumbling Danielle.
Danielle’s descent into inner turmoil begins when she spots her childhood friend and ex-girlfriend Maya, played by Molly Gordon. She was unaware Maya was going to attend the shiva. Soon after, Danielle’s sugar daddy, Max, played by Danny Deferrari, unexpectedly arrives. He is followed by his wife, Kim, played by Dianna Agron, and their baby, Rose. Danielle didn’t know he was married, let alone a father. On top of all this, Danielle must deal with questions from family and friends about her future career and relationship prospects, and she attempts to keep it all together while inwardly falling apart.
While watching this movie, I planned to write down my thoughts. However, I found myself so absorbed that I forgot to think or write anything down. This movie precludes thinking — it is a deluge of pure emotion that pulls you into the tension and anxiety on screen and makes you feel all the nerve-wracking tension that Danielle is experiencing over the course of the shiva.
Her situation bridges on horror — which Seligman capitalizes on as she makes a connection between painful social interactions and actual terror. The uneasy soundtrack by Ariel Marx emphasizes the connection. The music sounds like it belongs in a psychological horror thriller. It wonderfully heightens the emotions of stress and agitation that Danielle is feeling inside.
“I was inspired by a lot of psychological thriller kind of pieces,” said Seligman in an interview. “So that’s the only time that I realized it might have horror elements. I wasn’t purposely trying to go for it. I just kept saying the word ‘anxiety’ and then realized that’s what a horror movie does — it makes you feel anxious. That’s literally the point.”
The film pulled me in — everyone, at one point or another, has most likely been in Danielle’s shoes, enduring questions from family and friends about an uncertain future and rocky personal life while having to be around people you have painful histories with. Reminiscent of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, the film also captures the anxiety of being unable to get away from people you’d like to avoid.
As the shiva progresses, Danielle does not seem to be able to escape from her situation. People keep talking to her and the tension continues to heighten, and all the while, she is forced to put on fake smiles and false politeness.
The film’s gradual movement from uncomfortable to horrifying is well-balanced. The complications of the scenario, leading ultimately to the final scene and payoff, were added in and introduced with skillful timing, making for a smooth progression toward the crescendo and elevating the terror at all the right moments. Mixing in elements of both humor and horror, the drama of the film never lost its pace or sped up too soon.
The performances in “Shiva Baby” were masterful — exquisitely capturing each character’s role in Danielle’s shiva from hell. They complemented one another perfectly for a delicately portrayed tapestry of anxiety. Sennot in the role of Danielle was perfect. She was wonderfully natural while also capturing minute comedic timing and conveying Danielle’s inner turbulence as she interacts with different characters and navigates her way through the day.
“This movie shows that being a young woman is a horror movie,” Sennot told Variety magazine. “Nobody else at the shiva is in a horror movie. When you’re a young woman, there’s all this pressure to be independent and sexually adventurous, but also to have a boyfriend, soon. There’s pressure to be skinny, but not too skinny. All these pressures come from different places, your family, society, your friends. You never even listen to what you want. But Danielle is in this situation where all of these things are butting heads. It’s terrifying.”
Polly Draper’s performance as Danielle’s mother was completely convincing as a loving mother unable to understand her daughter’s mysterious inner life. She was affectionate and likable while causing unintentional pain to her daughter through her thoughtless statements. Draper also nailed the hilarious, banal conversations with the other people at the shiva, and she was natural, funny and precise.
“Shiva Baby” captures the feelings of shame, anxiety and embarrassment of young womanhood incredibly well. Filmed all in one location with the same characters, it completely immerses the audience in the rollercoaster of Danielle’s mental state with confidence and impact.
You never would have guessed the film is Seligman’s debut and that she was scrambling to find funding for “Shiva Baby” up until the day of production. She remembers the lack of encouragement she received as a student at NYU. She said, “When I said to friends — even female friends — ‘I’m going to make a feature out of my thesis,’ everyone was like, ‘Okay … sure.’ It kind of sucks. I think if I was a dude and was like, ‘I’m gonna make a feature,’ … I have no idea if it would have been different. But I just stopped talking about it after that. I was like, ‘Okay, it seems like I really piss people off when I say that I want to make a feature.’ And these were some of my friends too.”
However, it was Seligman who triumphed in the end. “Different people are encouraged in different ways, and I think female ambition is always sort of like, ‘Okay, relax.’ I feel like I had to keep my ambition to myself or something, I don’t know. I always think if you aim really high, you’re going to fall in the middle,” she said.
“Shiva Baby” is an impressive feature debut — a masterclass in transmitting emotions through film. It is balanced, clever, relatable and accurate, and the attention it is earning for its young female director is more than well deserved.