“Shiva Baby” rides Emma Seligman’s squirmy rollercoaster to bountiful results

Emma Seligman’s deft directorial debut finds its way to the top of the coming-of-age genre with her versatile creative direction.

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Courtesy of Utopia

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) and her ex-girlfriend Maya (Maya Gordon) star in the film.

By Steven Pappas, Sophie Burns, Editor-In-Chief, and Olivia Ostrowski, Editor-in-Chief

On Friday, April 2, “Shiva Baby” was released to limited theaters and video on demand in the United States. The film follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who’s confronted with her own self-worth as she attends a shiva caught between her successful ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), and his entrepreneurial wife Kim (Dianna Agron).

The film’s an adaptation of writer-director Emma Seligman’s short story of the same name. The film, however, has more of an autobiographical element to it. Danielle’s struggle to acclimate to her more traditional, competitive relatives at the shiva was heavily influenced by Seligman’s own experiences.

The film’s comedy is heavily influenced by Danielle’s situation, so Seligman’s experiences enrichen it further. It’s not exactly an on-the-nose cringe comedy like “The Office,” but it comes from the film’s array of anxious and awkward performances. Sennott’s performance is extremely subtle, and she uses her body language expertly to portray Danielle. She plays with the locks of her hair when she’s uncomfortable and does it more frequently as the film progresses.

Sennott’s Danielle attending the shiva. (Courtesy of Maria Rusche/Shiva Baby)

Danielle’s vast disconnect between her and her relatives is best exhibited in her conversations as well. Seligman’s script masterfully leaves the audience with uncertainty regarding Danielle’s future. Her major and career options aren’t fully detailed, so her relatives’ various guesses are merely shots in the dark. And yet, she’s barraged with these questions to the point of not knowing the answer herself.

Seligman’s ace up her sleeve, however, is her ability to weave the film’s comedy through dramatic set pieces. Many of them hark back to recent thrillers like Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems.” Danielle’s relationship with many of the film’s supporting characters is uncomfortably rocky, and she has to navigate this through relatives aching to know everything about her. It’s not expertly told from a storytelling perspective, but it’s nevertheless deft in how it portrays their interactions.

What brings the drama and comedy together in this film is its sea of dramatic irony. Max is attending the shiva with Kim, and Maya is both more successful and self-assured in her future than her. Seligman will sometimes place a MacGuffin in order to further the conflict between characters, such as an expensive bracelet that Max bought for both Danielle and Kim. All of this conflict is inherent, so her relatives are completely ignorant of her biting uneasiness and thus respond poorly to her. It’s tension, anxiety, and humor all fantastically bundled together.

Seligman’s direction shines in the film’s dramatic spotlight as well. In Danielle’s claustrophobic conversations, her shot composition glares at the characters’ expressions. To ingrain that squeamish feeling into the audience, she uses many quick cuts to close-ups which escalate as the scene climaxes. She completely hits the sweet spot, as it’s as enthralling as it is difficult to watch.

What elevates these set pieces with Seligman’s anxiety-inducing direction is Ariel Marx’s score. It’s not a consistent set of notes but rather a series of sharp, sudden sounds. It’s the type of musical composition that would be expected of a horror film, as it’s meant to instill a deep apprehension into the audience which keeps them on their toes. Here, however, the same tone is applicable despite there being such a general gap in their genres.

From the beginning, the film’s expectations were against it. Its premise groans a sitcom-esque sentiment; the audience can almost see the “what could go wrong?” stitched onto it. It also comes from a heavily saturated coming-of-age genre, so the film’s premise and themes will often find their way at the bottom of that bin to collect dust.

It’s in that situation, however, that Seligman’s ambition and creative direction shine. It’s a soothing blend of humor, anxiety, and heart, all intelligently told to its young adult audience. It doesn’t merely speak to us but rather shouts from the depths of its vocal cords on top of a skyscraper. And, to our ears, it’s harmonious.

You can watch “Shiva Baby” in limited theaters and video on demand now.

This story was originally published on Devils’ Advocate on April 26, 2021.