“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps,” is just one of the many acerbic lines to emerge from the ever-simmering dialogue closing in on the protagonist in Emma Seligman’s feature debut Shiva Baby.
Taking as its predominant setting the stuffy interior of a shiva gathering (the Jewish period of mourning after a death), the viewer experiences with Danielle the grinding humiliation of bumping into her sugar daddy in the most unlikely of places, having to make small talk with his wife (new baby balanced on her hip), all the while being endlessly questioned about whether she has anorexia and what on earth she’s going to do with her life post-graduation.
Helped along by a thriller-esque score penned by Ariel Mar, the film is an exercise in building palpable tension, with a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety moving closer and closer to a hellish fever pitch with every passing moment.
Deadpan online comic Rachel Sennott is superb in the lead as a hard to read 20-something battling the contradictory impulses and pressures of finding one’s self and independence in a traditional Jewish community in modern-day New York. Despite unfolding in one place, the keenly observed drama manages to conjure a plethora of insights: the sense of empowerment Danielle thought she had gained by selling sex crumbling away in the context of the family gathering, her alternate panic eating and scraping of her plate of buffet food back into the servers, her need to find control in her relationship with food, and her exploration of her bisexuality as she squabbles with an ex-girlfriend.
While intensely specific in its characters and world it creates, it’s also sublimely relatable in capturing the awkwardness of coming of age.
We had a brilliant chat with Seligman about how her collaboration with Rachel Sennott came to be, how she treated the film more like a horror than a drama, and why the new “trend” for messy female leads should be no different from the messy male leads who have always been seen on screen.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 12th June 2021.
Shiva Baby is released in select cinemas and digitally on demand on 9th June 2021.
Watch the trailer for Shiva Baby here: