Written and directed by Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby focuses on Danielle (Rachel Sennot), a young Jewish bisexual woman who attends a “shiva” (the Jewish morning period for first-degree relatives) with her family and bumps into her sugar daddy and ex-girlfriend, along with other nosy relatives at the venue. Chaos, hilarity, and awkwardness ensue.
At just 78 minutes, Seligman’s directorial debut tackles a lot of topics, utilizing generation gaps and millennial anxieties for peak circumstantial comedy. Danielle is still undecided about what she wants to do with her life, dabbling in gender studies, acting, and other subjects.
Although she’s financially supported by her parents, she tells Max (Daniel Deferrari), her sugar daddy, that she’s a law student who needs to pay her bills, in a bid to feel financially and sexually independent. But Max, it turns out, has a child and a wife whose entrepreneurial businesses support her husband’s lavish spending habits. Meanwhile, Maya (Molly Gordon), her ex, finds out about Danielle’s secret while her mother brushes off her bisexuality as “experimentation” and thinks her daughter spends her free time babysitting.
The film does a grand job in conveying the implicit queerphobia, misogyny, and heteronormative ideals that come to light in social gatherings—precisely the reason why family reunions are so awkward in the first place. Although billed as a comedy, Danielle’s anxiety, claustrophobia and unease are very palpable, highlighting the slippery space that millennials often have to navigate when dealing with older or conservative folks while also looking their exploiters in the face. It also emphasizes that for many women, choosing sex work of their own volition may not bring the sense of liberation or autonomy that they had hoped for.
In fact, at certain moments, Shiva Baby feels less of a comedy and more of a gritty, insightful look into a young woman’s struggles- with her sexuality, feminist ideals, societal and familial expectations, and her own self-image, that often contradict each other, with the screenplay’s brutal realism and honesty being sort of reminiscent of Fleabag.
The tense background score seems to build up towards something grotesque, although the climax never quite reaches that point, suggesting that even though relationships are messy and rarely uncomplicated, they are never beyond fixing. At times, the dialogues feel a little tedious, and perhaps deliberately so, showcasing how it is so awkward and difficult to have certain much-needed conversations in the first place.
Overall, the film is well-written and wonderfully acted, using awkward comedy to address some relevant topics, even if it makes certain people uncomfortable.
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