Adapted from her short film of the same name, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is a refreshingly contemporary twist on the coming-of-age story. The fulcrum of the film is Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a liberal arts major who’s dabbling in both babysitting and sex work to support herself through her studies. Attending a shiva for a distant relative, her efforts to balance the professional and the personal are excruciatingly put to the test when she sees that her married sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), is also a guest at the event.
An opening scene efficiently sets up the dynamics of Danielle’s relationship with Max. Though she’s quick to request payment from him after their enthusiastic sex session, she does so with slight embarrassment, eventually departing with a tender kiss, suggesting an affection that goes deeper than a simple business arrangement. The subsequent surprise appearance at the shiva of this man, alternately a client, love interest, hook-up partner, and a kind of patron, forces Danielle to confront the emotional complexities presented by her impending adulthood.
Indeed, nearly every character in the film is cleverly positioned to draw out some of the dualities and dueling expectations that Danielle now finds herself torn between as a young woman on the cusp of post-graduate life. Maya (Molly Gordon), her childhood friend and former lover, both dredges up baggage from the past and points toward a potentially happy future, while also hinting at a conflict between her more conventional, socially sanctioned heterosexual leanings and what are dismissed as “experimental” dalliances with other women. And Max’s beautiful entrepreneur wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), functions as both a romantic rival and a stand-in for a kind of “girl boss” feminism that Danielle clearly resents, despite the enviable confidence and freedom that it appears to have bestowed on Kim.
Shiva Baby unfolds almost entirely in real time, and between the intensity of its presentation, its distinctively Jewish milieu, and its near-fetish for anxiety-inducing social encounters, Seligman’s feature-length directorial debut could make for an interesting double bill with Uncut Gems. Except the open hostility of the Safdie brothers’ film is swapped out for a simmering passive aggressiveness, and instead of financial ruin or death, the personal oblivion that beckons to Danielle seems to be the helpless dependence of childhood. Here, returning to her parents’ empty nest feels as much like a promise of refuge as it does a constant threat.
Elsewhere in Shiva Baby, the shrill, unwelcome presence at the shiva of an actual baby, Max and Kim’s daughter, amusingly underlines Danielle’s feelings of vulnerability, which she appears to be combatting on a moment-to-moment basis. The somber occasion and intimate domestic setting mean that Danielle is also frustratingly unable to act with her usual sexual confidence, though these factors don’t prevent her from being bombarded with inappropriate questions and remarks about her body and her relationship status. Seligman’s film is highly attuned to the insecurities of the quarter-life crisis, particularly those that affect women, as well as how interpersonal boundaries are tested at large extended family gatherings, which are shown to be just as oppressive as the enclosed spaces they’re held in.
Shiva Baby’s action unfolds almost entirely within the confines of a few adjoining rooms, and the sense of overwhelming claustrophobia is enhanced by uncomfortably tight framing, along with a sparse sound design punctuated by minimal, ominous strings. But even as the tension ratchets up, the film mostly unfolds in a naturalistic manner. Its impressive tonal balance is also evident in the frequently hilarious dialogue, which is in the same uneasy register as some of the best cringe comedy of the past couple of decades, without ever feeling too self-conscious to be believable. And the centerpiece of this masterful high-wire act is Sennott, who captivatingly matches her accomplished comic timing and deadpan line delivery with a frazzled nerviness, convincingly showing Danielle teetering ever-closer to emotional and physical collapse. Gordon’s more relaxed Maya also makes for a great foil, serving as a kind of hectoring conscience and voice of reason with her ever-present smirk.
Though it might not dive particularly deeply into its characters’ psychology, Shiva Baby does an effective job of building tension from what is a relatively familiar, low-key scenario. The absence of any serious conflict means that the few occasions when things do come to a head end up disrupting the film’s tightly wound momentum. But for a film about someone graduating college with concerns for her future, it seems oddly fitting when it’s revealed that there’s ultimately not much to see on the other side of an escalating sense of dread.