While family gatherings, in general, might be very overwhelming and anxiety-inducing for some people, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby takes the sheer catastrophe to the the next level. Expanded from Seligman’s 2017 short film of the same title, the story unfolds an utterly awkward and chaotic series of moments as the protagonist, Danielle (Rachel Sennott, in a downright thought-provoking performance), spectacularly sets all her secret lives, social discomforts, and piles of lies to collide into each other in a fateful shiva gathering. Set in a tightly cramped mourners’ house, the whole moment boasts a claustrophobic atmosphere and an ironically hilarious thriller in an unexpected timing.
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Danielle, however, is neither naive nor full-on rebellious. She actually manages to have certain kind of composure beyond her age. She is a young, bisexual, aspired feminist majoring genre studies; and, she’s always fueled with curiosity. Her views of sexuality is thoughtful. She knows how romance feels like when she dated Maya (Molly Gordon, Booksmart), whose identity she often slurs; and, she just recently discovers the transactional power of her own body when she decides to become a sugar baby—an ambiguous experimentation of what she thoughts as an extreme form of empowerment. The thing is, her transcending self-discovery quests scatter all over the place as they are all moving on without direction. The shiva disaster is beyond her blindspot and she comes unprepared.
All the wrong things that Danielle manages to ignores escalates quickly into the surface when her parent (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) brings her to a close-family’s shiva—a Jewish tradition to gather families and close colleagues for mutual mournings. The parent keeps dragging Danielle from one family to another in a hope to leverage her future career which she hasn’t thought of. Her relatives, of course, keep flooding her with insensitive remarks and questions, which mostly are jabs for her physical transformation. As expected, the ex-girlfriend is also among the attendance and suggests that thing hasn’t exactly been in a good term between them. While mingle-and-blend-in might be her best shot at surviving the shiva in one piece, Danielle instead spends her time navigating away from people and trying to make as little contact as possible with people.
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The chorus finally culminates and adds stinging riffs into the already chaotic hullabaloo when, unbeknownst to Danielle, Max (Danny Deferrari) a.k.a. her sugar daddy, arrive at the crime scene. Into Danielle’s sheer shock, Max comes into the shiva along with his extravagant, highly successful, non-Jewish wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and their baby. So, here we go having two babies in the shiva gathering. Hilariously, the two babies—the actual one and the sugar one—are somehow connected as shown in their behavior in the sultry atmosphere that surround them. It’s a hell with words that hurt and looks that kill; Danielle simply can’t escape it. Seligman magnificently choreographs each movement to sync with the rapid-fire dialogues and dizzying sound mixing that makes the house even scarier and more haunting than any haunted house in the recent history. The baby connection amidst the chaos is probably Seligman’s finest creative invention. While Danielle is in constant deadpan mode, Max and Kim’s baby becomes her expression surrogate. Danielle is restless inside but her body stiffens, meanwhile, the baby will show a sense of discomfort. When Danielle cries inside, she represses it, but the baby cries it out loud for her.
Seligman’s full-feature debut is unquestionably a poised venture. It’s well written and well-presented to make sure that its contextual subjects (and, at some points, comedy) are communicated seamlessly to the audiences who can easily relate to the subject. And, making the whole claustrophobic dramedy spearheaded by Sennott’s unwavering charm into a compact 77-minute mayhem is possibly the nail to the coffin to make her one of the most promising directors on the rise. Shiva Baby is an unmissable chaos, apparently.