One of my earliest observations on watching Shiva Baby was the astoundingly familiar awkwardness of large family gatherings. The girl is rubbing shoulders with relatives and acquaintances she barely knows and fielding intrusive questions about her career, love life and eating habits. Where have I seen this before? It turns out that Jewish culture has its parallels with Indian culture, and that the
famously vilified Indian aunty is not all that unique.
Shiva Baby begins with an exchange between Danielle, the college-going, spectacularly clumsy, wry-witted protagonist, and Max, her sugar daddy. Quickly thereafter, Danielle unenthusiastically joins her parents to go to a shiva (a Jewish gathering during a time of mourning). She does not know who has passed away, and it is a recurring joke. Even before they enter, Danielle is mortified to see her ex-girlfriend, Maya, at the shiva. To make matters worse for Danielle, Maya is on her way to law school. On the other hand, Danielle’s degree is in the gender business, and this elicits unsolicited comments from her relatives. Her own parents are deeply worried about her job prospects and try to hook her up with prospective employment connections at the shiva. Danielle, much like several youngsters her age, does not have a steady sense of her future, and it would be completely normal to take the time to figure things out. However, it is a cause for concern here among a parade of family and acquaintances.
What adds to this explosive cocktail of pesky relatives, an over-achieving ex, and forced conversations is spotting her sugar daddy in the crowd. Max is accompanied by his wife, the ‘Shiksa princess’, and their mostly-wailing toddler. That Max has a family is news to Danielle. What unravels is a distressing, claustrophobic period at the shiva, where Danielle is pushed to her limits. Her private life threatens to spill over and be made a spectacle of in front of a ravenous audience.
Shiva Baby shows bisexuality as fluid attraction, with Danielle going back and forth between Maya and Max. Their presence under one roof fills the air with perceptible tension. Her mom establishes “No funny business with Maya”, and there is a scene where the two are cleaning vomit but their eyes are roving around their close proximity and tantalising angles. Later, once the hostility between the two settles, they are seen making out outside, hidden to the shiva attendees in plain sight.
Shiva Baby uses the setting of a tedious family event and adds strong (bi)sexual undercurrents to make it clumsy, stressful and downright hilarious. There are various instances where the tensions build up and visibly dissipate after peaking in the form of spilled-over coffee, a lost phone and broken glass.
Danielle carries the world-weariness of Fleabag. However, Fleabag dealt with actual grief and baggage, whereas Danielle’s story is set-up around grief but is not one of grief itself. And thank god for that (or the director, Emma Seligman), because Shiva Baby already traps its protagonist in a tightly orchestrated sketch of uncomfortable small talk and shocking encounters, which manage to be both funny and exhausting at the same time.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.