Emma Seligman’s feature debut Shiva Baby is a movie that stays with you. Despite its overall brevity (seventy-seven minutes start-to-finish), a darkly comedic tone and an extremely immediate approach to filmmaking, it is likely to linger somewhere in the back alleys of your subconsciousness, and it doesn’t matter if you fall into the film’s target demographic.
The film takes place over the course of one day (and I am told the principal photography was completed in two days) where the camera shadows Danielle (magnetic Rachel Sennott) as she goes to a family shiva (a Jewish ritual of mourning), which slowly descends into a smothering claustrophobic phantasmagoria of bouncing into relatives she barely recognizes, her overbearing parents, an old flame (Molly Gordon) and her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari), who also happens to arrive with his wife and child.
It’s no secret that the intended conversation Shiva Baby wants to have is aimed predominantly at its female audience, as it is an anxiety-riddled mood piece about the multiple perils of womanhood, from coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and the idea of establishing one’s own independence as a woman entering adulthood and seeking to find her footing in a world where everywhere she turns, she is expected to dance to a slightly different tune. I honestly think Seligman did a splendid job turning this predicament into an artistic experiment that forgoes any ambition to preach at its audience and instead provokes reflection in a more immediately visceral manner, by dropping the viewer into the thick of things strapped to Danielle’s shoulder. This way she is able to overcome any intellectual barriers and drive her knife straight into the viewer’s undefended anxieties or eerily symmetrical life experiences. After all, I can only imagine and empathize with the fact that for many (if not all) young women this bizarre game of anxious pinball looks all too real. But, here’s a question: why does this movie work on me?
I’m not a woman. Therefore, I don’t think I’d be too far off if I assumed this movie was not made for me. However, it resonates on frequencies I also find frighteningly familiar, being a millennial (albeit on the older end of this spectrum). I think this thematic generality – intended or not – comes from the fundamental relatability built into both the setting of the film and its basic premise. One does not have to be Jewish to recognize the familiar beats of any family function and Shiva Baby did awake some very vivid memories of my own where I was similarly assaulted from all directions at once by relatives I could not recognize, but who seemed to have a dangerously detailed knowledge of my life for some reason. Although I studied something more useful than Danielle, I can relate to the strange burden of having to assert myself in a room full of people who clearly know better how I should live my life, what choices I should make and when I should make them. I think that’s just a part of becoming an adult and having to battle against old folks who simply do not understand the world you are entering nor the idea that their good advice is honestly good for nothing because it is at least two decades out of date.
That’s how this movie got to me on a personal level. I remain fully aware of the fact it might (and should) affect other people slightly differently, especially if you can relate to some of its other aspects (especially in the context of the film’s intricate gender dynamic), but to me Shiva Baby succeeds on all fronts as a mother!-esque experiential horror that reminded me of how I too had to navigate a world where I was vindictively patronized by older people who ‘only had my best interests at heart’. I do know what it feels like to be compared to more switched-on family members. I know what it feels like to be constantly asked when I’d get married, or hurried into having kids. I know the crushing anxiety of being constantly told I should not only cease to pursue my passions but subdue them completely because ‘in the real world’ I would have no value if I didn’t have a well-paid job. Well… let’s just say I am to this day grappling with the fallout of how I handled something similar to what Danielle was facing (at least in this regard). She held fast. I caved. But that’s a story for a different day.
Any film that can circumvent the viewer’s defences and crawl beneath the mask they don every day for others not to see their internal struggle is a film worth not only watching but discussing and praising. Shiva Baby will definitely mean something different to different people. For some it will be a frightening second cousin to Rachel Getting Married or Krisha that pokes at their insecurities from a similar angle. For others it will be a purely visceral exercise in anxiety-inducing suspense bolstered by an assaultive score akin to Uncut Gems. And then for some it will be a mirror that distorts and blows certain things out of all proportion, but nonetheless projects their own reflection back at them. Therefore, it is a film that is difficult to walk by indifferently. Shiva Baby is a venomous movie and I mean it in the best possible way. It’s a movie that stings and if that’s the kind of art Emma Seligman wants to spend her life making, I am here for it.