The Movie Waffler New to VOD - SHIVA BABY | The Movie Waffler


shiva baby review
A young woman attempts to negotiate a socially fraught funeral service.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Emma Seligman

Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron

shiva baby poster

Funerals are supposed to be sombre affairs but that very atmosphere can lend itself to good humour. At my father's funeral I morphed into a third-rate Catskills comic to help lighten the mood, and I'd like to think that when I pass away, my funeral guests will turn my passing into a comedy roast, ribbing me in death the way they did in life. If Four Weddings and a Funeral had instead featured four funerals and a wedding, it would likely have been four times funnier.

What better occasion then for comedy gold than a Jewish-American funeral? That's the setting for writer/director Emma Seligman's feature debut Shiva Baby.

shiva baby review

Gen-Z-er Danielle (Rachel Sennott) has been secretly earning money from various "Sugar Daddies", men who festoon her with money and gifts in exchange for sex and companionship. She's managed to keep this a secret from her parents – Mom Debbie (Polly Draper) and Dad Joel (Fred Melamed) – despite them spying on her bank account, by telling them she's been babysitting for rich clients.

When Danielle is roped into attending a shiva following the funeral of some ambiguous family member, she is shocked to find that among the guests is one of her sugar daddies, Max (Danny Deferrari), accompanied by his gentile wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their infant daughter. Also in attendance is Maya (Molly Gordon), with whom Danielle had something of a scandalous affair in high school.

Picture one of Robert Altman's ensemble dramas, but with the attention focussed on one specific protagonist, and you'll have some idea of how Seligman's debut plays out. While Sennott's Danielle is the centrepiece, a host of oddball characters revolve around her. They're the sort of Jewish stereotypes only a Jewish filmmaker could dare to portray, constantly querying Danielle's weight ("You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps") and trying to set her up with jobs or a potential husband.

shiva baby review

After initially shrinking away from such attention, Danielle begins to rebel, rekindling her relationship with Maya and sneaking to the bathroom to send nudes to Max.

Sennott's Danielle embodies a very modern sort of young middle class milieu. She likely doesn't need the money she makes from her sex work, rather she enjoys the feeling of power it gives her. While her parents reluctantly accept her taking a college course with few career prospects ("Gender business") and try to steer her towards something more "practical", she's already making a good living doing something she seems to enjoy, even if it's far from socially acceptable.

Both Seligman and her young protagonist poke fun at the curious mix of traditional conservatism and social liberalism of New York's middle class Jewish community. Danielle's Mom claims she has a very tolerant outlook, but she begins sweating every time her daughter talks to Maya. Max boasts that by hiring Danielle's services he's helping the cause of feminism. Kim is a successful entrepreneur yet still seems solely charged with raising her kid while her husband is off romping with Danielle.

shiva baby review

With a knockout ensemble cast, Shiva Baby would make for a gripping pilot for a potential TV show. That's not to suggest that Seligman has made a movie with a small screen aesthetic however, as her roaming camera and sharp editing creates a minor cinematic feast, all backed by a score from Ariel Marx that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie. One nightmarish sequence, filled with gruesome close-ups of smoked salmon and potato salad shoved into aging mouths, does for Jews what Rosemary's Baby did for Satanists.

At a brisk 77 minutes, we're left wanting a little more, which is a compliment to Seligman's ability to create characters we warm to. But ultimately it's that very specific Jewish humour that makes Shiva Baby so much fun, that ability to find a silver lining, or sometimes a cloud, in every scenario. Example: when Danielle spills coffee on herself, her mother remarks "Sheila's coffee is always lukewarm anyway."

Shiva Baby is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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