Danielle is having a bad day. She’s at a shiva for someone she barely knew, surrounded by far too many people who know her too well: her ex-girlfriend (recently accepted to law school, naturally), her overbearing parents, and also, her sugar daddy—that is, someone she offers time and intimacy to in exchange for money. He’s brought his wife and infant daughter, who Danielle had no idea were in the picture. The house is crowded beyond belief; Danielle’s hairline is slicked with sweat. She grabs her mother by the buffet table and hisses “Mom…who died?!”
This is Emma Seligman’s debut feature, appropriately and cheekily named Shiva Baby (a play on ‘sugar baby’—the term often used to describe young women in transactional relationships with the aforementioned ‘sugar daddies’). Seligman, 26, originally conceived Shiva Baby as a short for her senior thesis at NYU.
An early Twitter review for Shiva Baby posited that the film was, in essence, Uncut Gems for “hot, Jewish sluts.” This was the only selling point I needed; I watched the Safdie brothers’ chaotic, tense and very Jewish masterpiece Uncut Gems through my fingers, later evangelizing it to friends and family as my favorite movie I never wanted to see again (a person can only handle so much secondhand anxiety before it becomes their own).
Shiva Baby has thoroughly knocked Uncut Gems off of that particular pedestal. Other reviewers have drawn comparisons between Shiva Baby and the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Beyond the overlap in casting—Fred Melamed is in both—there is a fixation on chaos that underscores so many Jewishly-minded films. Why me? Why us? Why now? But where A Serious Man contrasted itself with the Book of Job, questioning obedience to God and the Jewish people, Danielle, much like Uncut Gems’ Howie, isn’t looking skyward to see if someone has it out for them. Because everyone in the room already does.
Danielle (played by Rachel Sennott) is weeks away from graduation, juggling the crushing weights of expectation in both her personal and professional life. She knows she needs to work the room at the shiva in question—have a good soundbite ready when prying family friends peers down their nose at her and asks her what her future plans involve. This setup alone—young bisexual Jewish sex worker trapped in a stuffy home with all her parents’ friends and enemies, expected to impress—would carry all 77 minutes of the film. But every tight camera turn brings a fresh source of panic: her parents are pushing her to ask casual acquaintances for job connections! Her sugar daddy knows her father from work! His wife looks like Malibu Barbie!
At first blush, Shiva Baby can be understood as a horror film. I’m inclined to argue that that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Seligman is a young, queer, Jewish filmmaker, and this debut is overflowing with questions of identity, family, intimacy, and self-actualization. This isn’t to say horror films don’t regularly address these questions. But Seligman’s filmmaking swings wildly between camp, drama, pastiche, and romance. It is a dizzying film, accompanied by a score that hits all the right notes, keeping the audience uncomfortably wedged between a rock and a hard place. When Danielle exits the house she’s been inside for most of the film to get air, I felt as though I’d finally been allowed to step outside and exhale.
Who amongst us has not been in crowded corner, trapped on all sides by well-meaning but frustratingly out-of-touch family members inexplicably touching our face and hair and hips, demanding to know what’s next? If you haven’t experienced this particular brand of dissociation—don’t worry. You’ll feel like you have by the end of the film. When Danielle’s father, played beautifully by Fred Melamed, clucks that he doesn’t think “feminism is a career,” Danielle shrieks, “it’s not a career! It’s my lens!”