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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Mourning The Uncertain Future of the Young (Instead of Whoever the Hell Just Died): A Review of “Shiva Baby” (2020)

Being a senior in college is an existentially terrifying thing (it’s even scarier now, having acknowledged it in print). Some people grow up knowing exactly what they want to do and what their place is in the world, regardless of the opinions and desires of the people in their lives. In my case, I have been so thoroughly enjoying the present (in the grand scheme of things, admittedly), that I’ve looked up and realized that the future is already directly in front of me. It’s a daunting thing to have staring down at you, especially when how you have chosen to spend your time illuminates little about how to spend the rest of it. Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby” is about this, and were it not half as wickedly funny as it is, it would just be uncomfortable. It lightens the mood with a variety of running verbal gags while also using everything in a director’s toolkit to convey the weight of an uncertain future on its protagonist.

To make matters worse, our main character, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), has much more than just questions of how her pursuit of a gender and women’s studies degree will provide a secure future to address. She must attend a Shiva — a mourning period commonly observed in Judaism — where her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) and, worst of all, her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), exert pressure on her from all sides. Did I not mention that she was a sugar baby? Regardless, that’s something she tries desperately to keep under wraps. On top of all of this, she learns that Max is married with a child, both of whom show up to the Shiva as well. Navigating the Shiva for Danielle requires an insane amount of emotional and verbal ambidexterity, as she must hold up multiple masks to her face while also maintaining the lies that she’s juggling in the air. The way the film presents the social battlefield of the Shiva makes Danielle’s psychological journey more sympathetic and interesting. The script establishes a variety of running bits in the form of judgmental questions and comments from relatives and family friends that are constantly lobbed at Danielle. Namely, about her diet. “Are you eating?” “Does she have an eating disorder?” “You’re so skinny!” All attempted secrecy is thrown out the window as prickly statements about her career prospects, weight and looks cut through the gregarious cacophony. The camera and lighting transform every conversation into a disorienting game of cat and mouse, often crafting shots from Danielle’s point of view where who’s behind the person that she’s talking to becomes just as important as the one most prominently in frame. The camera catches nervous and suspicious glances between moving faces in the holes in space between the necks of two people chatting. The soundtrack aids in creating an atmosphere of intense, nervous interpersonal reading: solitary violin strings plucking accents, the intrusive thoughts shown with the flicker of an eye. This being said, while “Shiva Baby” creates a highly uncomfortable environment, the film is also wickedly funny. Snide comments from side characters provide simultaneous sting and levity, both letting us up for air while allowing their meanspiritedness to further constrict us.

What makes things tricky for Danielle is that her “opponents” are abstract concepts that are hard to combat in claustrophobic space. She neither wants to disappoint her parents nor continue to rely on them for financial support. She is privileged, but finds herself in an odd position of attempting to prove her own agency to herself. The fact that Debbie and Joel treat the Shiva as a networking opportunity for Danielle doesn’t help things either. Maya presents another complication, not only because, at this social event, she’s almost a “rival” to Danielle, but because there are clearly lingering romantic feelings. Her parents’ failure to understand her bisexuality provides yet another wrinkle to her conflict with them. All of this manifests in her dynamic relationship to her sugar daddy, Max. At first, there’s a definite twinge of guilt upon realizing that he’s married, but then again, she derives a sense of control and power from getting him to perpetuate his infidelity… while they’re also at the Shiva. And that’s also a sticking point: we’re at a Shiva, an event of mourning, and yet, Danielle remains stuck within her own mind. One of the film’s first big laughs comes when, following an encounter with Max, her mother calls her to remind her that the Shiva is happening today, to which Danielle responds, “Who died?” So too are her parents, Maya’s mother, Max and his wife guilty of making the Shiva about themselves. There are probably fewer than five lines of dialogue referencing who died, the reason for the Shiva happening to begin with.

What makes “Shiva Baby” especially impressive is its ephemerality. All of these conflicts and plot points are stuffed into a 70-minute package. Its concision makes its punchy presentation and dialogue more commanding, and, with no fluff, the laughter becomes more consistent and raucous, while also encouraging the audience to wince even more at its harder-to-stomach moments. Despite its tight dosage of discomfort, the film ends on a more positive, hopeful note, despite maintaining its claustrophobia until the final moments. The speed at which the film moves, however, also betrays it, as it drops its guard in its conclusion and allows a winning hand to spill from its sleeves. The film is like a juicy piece of meat, a lot of flavor in a small surface area. It feels like it should be chewed on slower after the fact, but the film fills in those gaps too quickly for the taste to remain satisfying. It remains an impressive mechanical wonder and still funny after the fact, but I feel as if I’ve been denied the opportunity to savor it.

Rating: 4/5

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