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‘Shiva Baby’ is an anxiety-driven nightmare of the best kind

‘Shiva Baby’ is an anxiety-driven nightmare of the best kind

‘Shiva Baby’ is an anxiety-driven nightmare of the best kind
April 15
13:30 2021

“You can’t just show up to the afterparty for a shiva and, like, reap the benefits of the buffet.”

“Yeah?”

Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young Jewish woman about to graduate from college, attends a shiva with her family. There, she runs into not only her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) but also her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari). As the gathering goes on, her relatives push her into anxiety about her current path in life, her sexuality and what direction she hopes to take.

Shiva Baby” is writer and director Emma Seligman‘s feature-length debut, setting out to probe feelings of social anxiety, aimlessness and the sheer hell of family gatherings. This film captures both the general awkwardness of being at that particular moment in life where you don’t really understand where you want to go as well as just how existentially terrifying the questions surrounding them can be, this is one of 2021’s best debuts from a fledgling creator.

Part of the foundation to “Shiva Baby’s” success lies in Seligman’s protagonist as portrayed by Sennott. She perfectly embodies this witty, directionless woman who’s not really sure how to continue her life or turn her education into a viable career. While introduced as someone who is insensitive (to the point she doesn’t even know whose shiva she’s attending) and blasé about her own life, the director and star bring out these more devastatingly human traits, with her seeming empty-headedness as a mask for her anxiety and her work as a sugar baby more as an output for her frustration and an attempt to find empowerment.

Seligman also further peels back Danielle’s layers through the progression of the 77-minute story, with Danielle trading barbs with her passive-aggressive ex, over-inquisitive relatives and her well-meaning, but insensitive parents. Seligman’s screenplay reveals Danielle as someone who doesn’t entirely understand herself and is repeatedly infantilized by her parents. She just isn’t sure what to do with herself and her confidence isn’t helped by those around her.

Some of the tensest moments in “Shiva Baby” don’t come from family in-fighting, but the quieter moments where both participants in conversations look just incompletely uncomfortable and at each other’s throats. The decision by cinematographer Maria Rusche to shoot handheld for at least half the movie also contributes to the discomfort. While not shaky, the camerawork highlights the emotional volatility in Danielle and the surrounding pressure-cooker of a situation.

The camerawork combines with Ariel Marx‘s discordant, string-heavy score to create an absolute fever dream of stress. What makes Marx’s music so great is its ability to both overwhelm and underline each and every sequence it scores. Marx keeps no more than a couple of strings in play, but she uses them effectively. For example, her work is first audible at the beginning of the shiva, more formal than anything but nothing sinister. However, as Danielle becomes more strung out by the day she’s having, the strings become heavier, sharper and more drawn out.

Seligman’s script, Rusche’s lensing and Marx’s score all combine to give this Jewish drama an unexpected genre twist — that of horror.

“Shiva Baby,” while not indulging in anything particularly scary so much as nerve-fraying, forces Danielle and viewers to grapple with the most subtle yet soul-rending questions of existence: what do I do now, am I really the person I want to be and have I disappointed my parents? The way Seligman and her crew handle this is so vulgar, yet human. Danielle combating her hostile mother is interlaced with moments of tenderness, humor and discussing a relative’s genitals.

The supporting cast also deserves praise. Gordon has great chemistry with Sennott, both exchanging snipes and tenderness. As Max, Deferrari has this sleazy, yet disconcertingly gentle presence. The other standouts are Fred Melamed and Deborah Offner as Danielle’s parents, both of them have deliciously irritated interactions with the other and their daughter.

“Shiva Baby” is one of the year’s best and an electrifying debut for Seligman, human in so many unexpected ways and terrifying in others.

Will’s rating: 4.25/5

Courtesy Utopia

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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