The delicious fear that defines the viewing experience of Emma Seligman’s debut film Shiva baby starts with the very first scene – a call from mom having sex – and doesn’t stop until the credits roll in. The film takes place over a day and, apart from the opening scene, takes place entirely in Shiva. We follow Danielle (Rachel Sennott) – student and sugar baby – who tries and (occasionally) not tactfully navigates family and romantic entanglements that become so uncomfortable that the film playfully pushes the edge of social horror.
The film was originally an 8-minute short film with the same actress and premise: A young woman meets her sugar daddy at a Shiva. Seligman describes the development from short film to feature film in an interview with Ella Kemp as follows: “Since I come from a short film, the question when expanding into a feature film was, ‘How are we going to keep everyone interested on this day? ‘Seligman extends a nightmarish event from 8 to 77 minutes and adds an additional stress-inducing factor that was not present in the short version: surprise! Danielle’s ex-girlfriend is present.
“At first I just thought it must be tense, but in the end I thought it sometimes feels like a nightmare for a young woman.” Seligman absolutely manages to keep this day interesting for the entire duration. Imagine trying to deal with an ex and a sugar daddy (who you just found out is married and a father) while answering incessant questions about your major, career, and weight from relatives, that you haven’t seen in years! All of these elements, combined with music that sounds like something out of a horror movie, spin Shiva baby into an atrocity exhibition that cannot be looked away from (not surprisingly, Seligman quotes Opening night as an influence.)
All of this does not mean that the experience of watching this movie is uncomfortable; It’s full of comedy if you have the stomach for it. Seligman describes the Jewish sense of humor as “generally uncomfortable and worthy” which, to some people, is less “funny” and more “I have to get out of the room”. Personally, I found the comedic timing spot on, perfectly combining excruciating secondhand embarrassment with moments of funny comic relief (that never lasts long). This Jewish film is compared to Uncut gemstones (2019), the fast pace of the Safdie brothersd drama starring an extremely worthy Adam Sandler who seems determined to lose all of his money. While the stakes are certainly higher Uncut gemstonesI could relate to Danielle’s plight in Shiva babywhich makes it exponentially more stress inducing. I knows How hard it can be to explain to aunts and uncles that you have no idea what you will do after graduation.
At 77 minutes the film flies by; But don’t let the short term fool you. A lot can happen in and around a two-story house full of friends and family. Seligman manages to pack lovable mother-daughter moments along with palpable sexual tension between Danielle and her ex-girlfriend, adding emotional weight to the story in addition to its entertainment value. The conclusion is satisfactory and, given the small size of the narrative, feels deserved, but never delves into its painful awkwardness. Shiva baby is a super fun and promising debut from a director and I can’t wait to see what she does next.