Let it be made clear that Shiva Baby has no relation whatsoever with the Hindu God, his childhood, or his sons. The film deals with Judaism in which a shiva (or sitting shiva) is the week-long mourning period where, according to Wikipedia, the relatives discuss their loss and accept the comfort of others. While it sounds soothing for the mental pain, it’s the second word in the title that dials up the stress in the film’s already tense atmosphere. “Who the fuck brings a baby to a shiva?” someone comments. She’s not wrong, as you later see how uncomfortable the mood becomes with the crying of this baby.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before talking about Shiva Baby, it’s imperative you get introduced to the characters and their condition. At the centre, we have Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student with a sugar daddy named Max (Danny Deferrari). The movie opens with their sex scene, though if you notice, the act is blurred as the camera focuses itself on Danielle’s phone. As Shiva Baby progresses, this phone is found guilty of spilling liaison secrets. The trouble surfaces when Danielle and Max find each other at the shiva. She is there with her parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), and he soon finds his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), at the venue with their baby. The recipe for distress is in place, and director Emma Seligman dons the chef’s hat and prepares a dish to choke your throats.
To merely label Shiva Baby “claustrophobic” would be an understatement when this is one of those very, very few films that actually leave you gasping for air. It owns the c-word. Therefore, if you are suffering from any breathing complications, please do stay away from this film. Others can torment their nerves at the sight of the crowded frames, tremble at the sound of the horror-movie score and crack up at the comedy on display, most of which comes from Max’s bewildered expressions. His perplexed face upon finding Danielle at the shiva causes amusement. Danielle, on the other hand, does not deviate from her anxious state. She is always on edge, fearful and threatening to expose the lies shimmering beneath the surface.
Most of Shiva Baby is filmed inside a house. Yet walls are invisible and are replaced by chattering humans. The intention is to remove privacy. The characters are never alone when they converse with someone. They are either interrupted by a passerby, or there is at least one individual in the background listening to the intimate discussion. Even when Danielle and her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) escape into a room, they are still visible from outside through the glass in the door. Not that it turns into a serious hurdle when the place is populated with self-absorbed, self-righteous dramatis personae. Joel and Debbie keep on pushing Danielle to strike an offer for a part-time job with Kim, not noticing the discomfort and reluctance in her voice. Debbie, in front of Max, says that his baby is cute. When he leaves, she discloses her true views: “It was hideous, freakishly pale, and no nose.” To sum up, they act like real people, people we know and who live around us. They say one thing in front of us and then gossip behind our backs. However, in Shiva Baby, there is no “back”. All thoughts, untrue and genuine, are laid in front of us. There are no confidences or scandals kept hidden from the audience. We become non-judgemental spectators who are present solely to derive entertainment from this chaos.
There were moments where I waited for an explosion. Danielle suppresses her feelings, so much so that you start to see her as a ticking bomb who could fulminate any minute. Unsurprisingly, she shouts and then later breaks down in front of broken glass pieces. It is here she is somewhat relieved of the burden. The crowded environment no longer oppresses her. As a car is cramped with passengers, she shows signs of irritation, but she is also fortified with newfound love. The severe confinement of the house compresses her disconcertment. Danielle finally catches a smile, and you smile with her.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.