Shiva Baby is the anxiety-fueled directorial debut by Emma Seligman that follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott) on a journey through the chaos in the face of mourning. She is a directionless college student attending a memorial service with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed), for a recently passed family friend. Inside are family and friends within the Jewish community where everyone knows everyone, and your business is never your own. It’s best to speak in vague generalities rather than delve into the complexities of adulthood.
Imagine Danielle’s horror when her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) appears and her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), whom she slept with that morning, arrives at the service. Tensions escalate when Max’s wife Kim (Dianna Agron) comes with their newborn baby Rose, much to Danielle’s complete surprise. She didn’t know they existed! But as Danielle navigates the barrage of polite relatives and family friends asking about her professional and personal life, she barely finds a moment to absorb the unlikely situation and how to survive the chaos.
Cinematographer Maria Rusche moves through the herd of mourners as though the house is endless. Each corner turned, another conversation opened, and poor, disoriented Danielle had no room to breathe, with Max staring at her from across the room or her parents trying to explain what Danielle was studying. Gender studies? Gender business? Babysitting!
The result is palpable tension, and Seligman is unrelenting in capturing Danielle at odd angles to show her unease. Danielle is consistently on the defense but must recognize her shortcomings. She has a lot of growing up to do, and Rachel Sennott displays Danielle’s mental gymnastics at every turn, like when she overhears her parents talk with Kim as she quietly chokes on a bagel mere feet away. Danielle is trapped, and getting out is not simply walking out the front door.
Shiva Baby is an astonishing directorial debut, and there’s a good reason it’s the talk of the town.