Emma Seligman’s debut, an expansion of a short thesis film, is a slim and intermittently funny exploration of how modern living clashes with Jewish faith. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a drifting college student, reluctantly in the pocket of a sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari). Dragged to a shiva by her overbearing parents (a well-cast Fred Melamed and Polly Draper), Danielle is mortified when, before she can even take a bite from the bagel spread, she bumps into her ex Maya (Molly Gordon), to whom she is constantly unfavourably compared by the community at large. Complete with Polanski-lite camera moves through the suited bodies that line this shiva, Danielle’s day gets even worse when Max shows up – he’s a family friend, not that either of them knew.
Shiva Baby is considered a star-making turn for Sennott, an appealing actor with great comic timing who shows a surprising vulnerability beneath her Mean Girl persona. It is a very good performance, even if the actress’s heritage as an Italian-Irish Catholic raises questions about who should play which roles. When Max’s wife, Kim (Glee’s Dianna Agron), appears – a shiksa woman in possession of just about all of the qualities Danielle can’t have – Sennott’s background stops this piece of tension from really sizzling. Otherwise, there are amusing comic sequences stemming from Danielle’s affair and other lies being caught out at this most ostensibly sad and gossipy of events.
The central farce is enjoyable enough, though even at under 80 minutes Seligman’s scenario feels overstretched. The cod-thriller style heightens the audience’s experience of Danielle’s anxiety, and the peppering of generational tension is well balanced across the strong ensemble. But when it’s over, one can’t help but feel that this busy film offers little real insight into what it is to be young and constantly making mistakes. Shiva Baby purports to have answers about how to navigate an increasingly anti-traditional society, but it’s more like a sitcom pilot that shows promise for the future.
Shiva Baby is released in select cinemas and digitally on demand on 9th June 2021.
Watch the trailer for Shiva Baby here: