A millennial horror if there ever was one, Shiva Baby is a roaring success of a feature debut for both Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott, reviews George Bell.
At first glance, Shiva Baby is just an awkward comedy. Beneath the surface, it is so much more. Themes of sex positivity, sexuality and responsibility are portrayed openly from the very start and are executed brilliantly through the performances, dialogue and camera work.
The feature debut of writer/director Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is a comedy following college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) who finds herself in a worst-case scenario while at a Jewish funeral when she encounters both her ex-girlfriend and her current sugar daddy—as well as his family.
One of the greatest aspects of Shiva Baby is just how realistic and modern it feels to its audience. Well written dialogue, coupled with great performances from the entire cast, do a fantastic job of portraying just how awkward and embarrassing this whole situation is. People react in a recognisable and realistic way, which lends to both the anxiety and comedy of proceedings. Danielle’s character is all-too relatable as the student about to graduate with no idea what to do next. She’s a sex-positive sugar baby and it’s emphasised throughout just how okay that is and how empowering it can be, even if it has gotten her into a few awkward conversations. It’s interesting and fresh to see this theme covered through a new lens.
Initially a short film of the same name from 2018, Shiva Baby is a film a long time in the making and has successfully made it through its development into a feature length film with minimal growing pains. The story doesn’t feel padded, and at a swift 78-minute runtime, it maintains a steady level of humour and pressure throughout. The feature length allows time for even more complexity in Danielle’s life, like the addition of her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and the opportunity to represent Danielle’s bisexuality.
While being unapologetically a black comedy, other genres seep into the film, making it as indecisive as its protagonist. Tones of horror and thriller persevere throughout Shiva Baby thanks to excellent camera work and a superb soundtrack. Combining the camera angles you would usually associate with a horror film such as the use of shaky camera and lens distortion, the film successfully conveys the claustrophobic nature of the event and what Danielle is enduring. This is only emphasised through the soundtrack’s use of shrill strings, the type you’d expect to find in a film like Hereditary. For anyone anxious about post-pandemic social events, Shiva Baby may be one to miss: you will be more stressed watching this than any horror release this year. The film eventually goes beyond its initial awkward humour and plummets into sheer social dread, causing the laughs to dry up by the ending.
Another element of Shiva Baby that is always present, but never directly addressed, is Danielle’s relationship with food. Throughout the film, everyone, mostly older people, are asking Danielle if she has eaten, how much she weighs and why she is “skin and bones”. Her mother keeps trying to give her food to eat, and at times Danielle fills her plate only to empty it a few moments later. Even the main film poster shows Danielle in a dress covered in bagels. The film implies that she could have an eating disorder (something many guests ask openly) but with everything else going on and over such a short runtime, this aspect of her character isn’t given enough time to develop fully. It would certainly have been interesting to explore this more, if only the film just had more time.
A millennial horror if there ever was one, Shiva Baby is a roaring success of a feature debut for both Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott. It’s an anxiety-inducing ride that feels uncomfortably similar to the real world in all the best ways.
Shiva Baby is currently streaming on MUBI and in selected cinemas.
Words by George Bell
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