Shiva Baby (2020)
Words by Lola Dele
Shiva Baby (2020)
Developed from her earlier short, ‘Shiva Baby’ is Emma Seligman’s 2020 directorial debut, and a masterclass in second-hand embarrassment so excruciating it makes your guts convulse.
The film follows Danielle, played by Rachel Sennot, a 20-something who finds herself trapped at a Jewish funeral service with her parents -- who have no idea that she moonlights as a sugar baby -- the rich older man she’s sugar baby-ing for, her ex-girlfriend, and basically every possible member of her wider family and community. Danielle is a character entirely uncomfortable in her own skin, and as the movie progresses towards its denouement, we see her pushed to her limit, the semblance of control that she has created for herself coming crumbling down around her.
The ensemble cast - featuring Diana Agron, Molly Gordon, and Fred Melamed - do an incredible job of portraying this rich and enmeshed community; these are characters who have raised and been raised by each other. We see them bicker, bond over the past, and chat about the future.They orbit the buffet, piling the food they have meticulously laboured over onto the plates of their loved ones. Food here is both a language of love, and of mourning.
We also see the darker side of communal gatherings. The prodding and poking, the invasion of privacy and the blurring of the things we want to share and the things we would rather keep to ourselves; how the expectations of our parents weigh on us, and how we try to be perceived as these mature, responsible, and ultimately successful adults by the people who watched us grow up.
The relationship between Danielle and her ex-girlfriend Maya is a bright spot in what is the visual manifestation of anxiety and dread. They dance around each other, bickering and biting at each other at any given opportunity, but also gaze longingly at each other from across rooms. Their chemistry is electric, but oh so real. The tenderness and sexiness oozing from their every interaction isn’t enough for them to escape the awkward hang ups of modern dating,, with its weird and complicated rules of phone etiquette.
Through Ariel Marx’s masterfully eerie score, the small frame, and the setting of the whole cast in one room, this black comedy is transformed into a claustrophobic nightmare. Maybe it’s the plucked strings, or the piercing cry of a baby which punctuates the film, or even the sight of a nail goring Danielle’s leg, but something about this film creeps into your bones and refuses to leave.
In short, ‘Shiva Baby’ is a horror film. Horror as a genre, is about exploring our fears and our reactions to fear and tension in a safe and contained environment. No matter how gruesome or gory or frightening a film is, it will (as all films do) end; and with its ending, we as an audience are able to live out our worst fears and paranoias, before reaching a catharsis from which we can leave the emotion behind and move on with our lives.
The genius of ‘Shiva Baby’ is its lack of containment. The small horrors of Danielle’s experience are exaggerated by the normality, universality, and even banality of the context. We all experience grief and mourning, but even more so, we all experience awkward family situations, death, and extreme embarrassment. The relatability of Danielle’s situation makes the film all the more horrifying. Instead of a cathartic release at the end of film, ‘Shiva Baby’ leaves you with jangled nerves, a slightly sick feeling in your stomach, and the compulsion to watch anything that Emma Seligman creates ever.