Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2020, USA)

Shiva Baby is the debut feature directed by Emma Seligman. Based on the director's short film, it represents her first collaboration with actress Rachel Sennott. The two met while attending NYU. Set almost entirely during a shiva, or Jewish mourning ritual, the film feels in many respects like a play. Yet it succeeds despite this, as this is a film about a young woman who feels like the world is collapsing around her. The confined setting lends to this palpable sense of claustrophobia and gradually becomes suffocating.

The film centers around Danielle, a college senior who is a sugar baby to Max. While attending the shiva with her parents, she encounters Max, who is a former colleague of her father Joel. A dance between the two ensues, as Danielle learns that not only is Max married with a baby, but he is also not the breadwinner in the family (his wife chastises him for his reckless spending at "expensive restaurants"). A subplot occurring throughout the film involves Danielle's relationship with Maya, another young woman in the local Jewish community who also is Danielle's ex-girlfriend. In one of the better aspects of the script, their relationship is not made the centerpiece of the plot and is treated almost as incidental.

As far as films that create moments of cringe and secondhand embarrassment, it is harder to do better than Shiva Baby. The film also succeeds in that it manages to be very funny. Notable are Danielle's parents, played by longtime Woody Allen and Coen Brothers character actor Fred Melamed and Polly Draper from thirtysomething. There are several smaller roles of family members and community members that make the film feel lived in and relevant. Shiva Baby is a great debut effort and an assured first feature. It is no surprise that the collaboration has continued.



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