Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordon in 'Shiva Baby'twitter.com/darkdetective87

Emma Seligman’s debut feature opens with its protagonist — Danielle, a young, bisexual Jewish woman in her early twenties — having sex. Nothing about the scene is especially remarkable — that is until Danielle and her partner get out of bed, and he proceeds to pay her, because this man is her sugar daddy. It’s just the first of several razor-sharp twists in Seligman’s seventy-seven minute panic attack.

With claustrophobic close-up shots from cinematographer Maria Rusche and a hair-raising score from composer Ariel Marx which evokes the atmosphere of horror films like Get Out and Hereditary, Shiva Baby, despite its wryly witty dialogue and darkly humorous setting, may as well be a horror film too, since it plays out just like a nightmare: on a humid summer’s day, Danielle finds herself at a shiva in a house in Brooklyn filled with old and new acquaintances — including her family, sugar daddy Max, and ex-girlfriend Maya. Here, Seligman’s screenplay succeeds at being both extremely specific and yet extremely relatable: on the one hand, it tells the story of a young, bisexual Jewish woman from Brooklyn who is avoiding graduating from college and whose stand-up comedian ambitions are being supported by being a sugar-baby (or, as she entertainingly euphemises, “baby-sitting”). On the other hand, it perfectly encapsulates the experience — all-too-familiar to so many young people — of being at a family gathering where every question makes you feel like you’re being interrogated by the FBI and discussions revolve around three subjects: careers, college, and your love life (or lack of one).

“Shiva Baby — despite its wryly witty dialogue and darkly humorous setting —may as well be a horror film”

Setting the action of the film at a shiva in (almost) real time, and in one location, is a genius move from Seligman, stultifying the already oppressive atmosphere and emphasising the sense of claustrophobia felt by Danielle as she is swamped with a sea of relatives she hasn’t seen for years and whose friendly faces thinly veil the venom which makes even banal questions like ‘got a boyfriend yet?’, ‘how’s college going?’ or ‘have you lost weight?’ sound menacing. It’s in these moments — amplified by close-ups, quick cuts and a chorus of screaming children — that Shiva Baby is most uncomfortable to watch; a memorable scene towards the film’s climax is especially disturbing. In my memory, few films have succeeded at maintaining the same level of tension throughout as Seligman does; it’s perhaps the most astonishing feat of her already astonishing debut, although this is only made possible by the uniformly excellent cast.

Rachel Sennott (and bagel) in 'Shiva Baby'twitter.com/darkdetective87

All of the cast members give strong performances with exceptionally good comic timing, yet it’s Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordons’ performances as childhood-best-friends-turned-ex-girlfriends which I found to be the most magnetic, with their electric chemistry making every scene crackle with the tension of two exes whose relationship isn’t perhaps quite over, after all. Sennott, in particular, is a revelation, turning Danielle — who, in less skilled hands may just have been unlikeable and immature — into a profoundly relatable protagonist who we find ourselves rooting for as she battles off grannies, great aunts, sugar daddies, and exes and unapologetically shoves bagels into her mouth, all while delivering sharp one liners like “I’m not gonna blow him in the bathroom!”

“Seligman’s dialogue (...) heightens the tensions always simmering just below the surface”

Another particularly engaging element of Shiva Baby was its engagement with Danielle’s bisexuality. Depictions of bisexual women are a rarity in film — let alone in a manner which avoids sensationalising and sexualising their bisexuality whilst also depicting the micro-aggressions they so often face. A recurrent feature of the film is Danielle being confronted with no option but heterosexuality as family members ask her exclusively about “boyfriends”, while her mother warns her early in the film “no funny business with Maya” and repeatedly describes Danielle’s bisexuality as “experimenting” (a phrase I’m sure almost every queer person has heard at least once...). I found it refreshing to see these micro-aggressions being depicted in a way which felt as though they had been lifted directly from discussions I’ve had with my own family members in the past. It reflected more broadly the realistic, naturalistic nature of Seligman’s dialogue, which favours a pared-down approach — leaving more things left unsaid than it does said — and heightens the tensions always simmering just below the surface.


READ MORE

Mountain View

#850029 I Care A Lot takes “be gay, do crime” literally

◀︎ ’

Overall, Shiva Baby packs plenty into its short, sweet seventy-seven minute run-time. Perhaps the most impressive debut feature I’ve seen from any filmmaker in recent years, it’s undeniable that Seligman is a talent to watch. As often occurs with young (especially female) filmmakers, critics have been comparing her favourably to the likes of Greta Gerwig and Emerald Fennell. But to me, Seligman is a totally unique voice, and her female, queer, Jewish voice is still something of a rarity in Hollywood: comparisons, although flattering, don’t quite do her distinctive voice justice, and it’s a voice which I hope to see produce more work that’s equal parts unnerving and irreverent in the not too distant future.