M, 99 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Who brings a baby to a shiva?’ Guests at a funeral keep asking each other the question in this coming-of-age film set deep within New York’s Jewish community. It’s a neat play on words in a feature that is often razor sharp, if only mildly funny.
The bawling baby that guests are unhappy with is the daughter of an attractive young couple, Max (Danny Deferrari) and Kim (Dianna Agron), who seem to be the only ones to have brought young children along. For others attending, it’s a gaffe that only someone who is not truly Jewish, converted or not, could commit.
The toddler is not the babe in question. It’s Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young college student, majoring in gender studies, who is about to graduate. She is at a point in life where she finds herself angry, resentful and confused. No one understands her. And why does she have to attend the shiva (a family event after a Jewish funeral) of her uncle’s second wife’s sister?
Her overbearing mom, Debbie (Polly Draper), has supplied her with a ‘sound bite’, and her well-meaning dad, Joel (Fred Melamed), has jollied her along, but Danielle is still down in the dumps. She chugs down the wine and splurges on the buffet.
Some sharp writing and a convincing claustrophobic atmosphere, but this comedy in an insular Jewish community is only mildly amusing
The nosey, gossiping matrons, rendered in big close-up, single Dani out for special attention. They thought she was vegetarian, so why is she eating meat? She looks like Gwyneth Paltrow ‘on food stamps’, why has she lost so much weight? What is she doing after graduation? And has she found herself a boyfriend, yet?
Writer-director, Emma Seligman, highlights the insularity and intrusiveness so well. The claustrophobia that Danielle experiences in her encounters with her family and community is particularly well articulated in Shiva Baby, based on the short film that was the director’s graduation piece from NYU.
So, the handsome Max has arrived at the event with his striking blonde wife, variously described by the other woman as a ‘Malibu Barbie and a ‘shiksa princess’. Kim is no bimbo, however, but an accomplished entrepreneur said to be the breadwinner.
These revelations give Dani quite a turn. Earlier in the day, she was having sex with Max. Now he turns up with a wife that she didn’t even know existed.
That said, it is a puzzle that it matters. On the face of it, the relationship between Dani and Max is transactional, as she is receiving money from him that she was supposed to need for her tuition fees. But she is lying too and doesn’t have a place in law school that she can’t yet quite afford.
Isn’t the issue that Dani has a thing for him and tries to make him show that he has the same feelings for her?
In her director’s statement, Seligman explains the sugar relationship that is the backstory to her film. How they exist between older men and the younger women who they help out by paying for their company on dates. The transaction may or may not involve intimacy.
If Danielle is a sugar babe, isn’t Max a bit too young to be the other party? He’s older, of course, but the disparity isn’t that great. The issue is that Dani has a thing for him and she tries to make him show that he has the same feelings for her.
A further complication for Dani is her relationship with former bestie, Maya (Molly Gordon), her old friend who does have a place at law school.
Danie and Maya went to their prom together and there is some unfinished business between them that they take up again. Everything unravels for Dani in the short space of a day.
One of the pleasures of this slice of insular Jewish community life is the intermittent score by Ariel Marx, with plucking strings and synths and percussion from Sam Mazur. The instruments work together beautifully in counterpoint to the difficult, claustrophobic afternoon, ratcheting up the tension.
With its sharp writing and an especially good performance by its lead actor, Shiva Baby is clearly accomplished. Apparently, the shoot in Brooklyn took an efficient 16 days.
It has had a dream run for a first feature, being invited to screen in official selection at prestigious film festivals, like South by SouthWest and the Melbourne International.
Shiva Baby will appeal to audiences who appreciate its brand of humour but the claustrophobic atmosphere and difficult community dynamics may not go down so well with others.