← Back to Reviews

Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby -

Have you ever been to a family gathering that was so uncomfortable, you wanted to crawl out of your own skin? Odds are it wasn't as awkward as the one college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) attends in this movie, the titular shiva which is awkward on the onset since it's for a relative she barely knew. Danielle makes ends meet by working as a sugar baby, which she refers to as babysitting in conversations, and as a bisexual woman, her attempts to remain nonplussed to questions if she has a boyfriend become increasingly strained. Adding to this strain is the fact that she's not sure what she wants to do with her life, which doesn't sit well with a family of doctors, lawyers and business owners. To make matters worse, not only does one of her clients, Max (Danny Deferrari), show up, but his wife and young daughter are in tow.

If this plot description sounds like writer/director Emma Seligman wrote a checklist of every way in which a family gathering could be awkward and went from there, don't worry: contrived is not a word I would use to describe this movie. It always seems natural and as if it comes from a personal place. This is partly because Danielle comes across as human, at least more human than the objects of ridicule that the main characters in lesser movies like this one appear. My favorite way the movie does this is in Danielle's interactions with Maya (Molly Gordon), a former flame who is pretty much the only person with whom she can be honest with at the shiva, which, unfortunately, is not always to her benefit. I approve of how they convey their history strictly through (very good) acting instead of exposition. On that note, this is a star-making performance for Sennott, and it's nice to see that Hollywood took notice based on her appearance in Bodies, Bodies, Bodies. Danielle's interactions with her mother (Polly Draper) also made me clench my armrests in the best way for how Draper embodies a high expectations Jewish mother without venturing into parody. Also, the tension as to whether her "special relationship" with Max will come to light never wanes. Cinematographer Maria Rusche also deserves credit for how claustrophobic and inescapable she makes the creaky Brooklyn house where the shiva takes place. It may appear that with this much awkwardness, injecting comedy would be impossible, but Seligman somehow manages to do so at the right times and with just enough cringe (the good kind, that is). Few occasions in life seem more like what we imagine Hell is like more than family gatherings, especially when we think of ourselves as black sheep or when we have secrets we'd rather not reveal. As this movie's bittersweet conclusion proves, though, they're not the end of the world, and maybe, just maybe, we'll end up feeling better about ourselves when they're over.