Shiva Baby has an opening scene that in a most adept fashion embodies everything that should be in an opening. It’s the only scene set in a location that is different from the rest of the film’s single setting and gives us more or less all the information we need about the characters. Danielle is an undergraduate with a sugar daddy, Max. She has a bumbling father and an extremely assertive mother. She has no qualms about lying spontaneously. An artefact is passingly mentioned, the momentary nature of which will be duplicated in the quickness of the shattering consequence it will bring. She needs or wants money. Max is a condescending individual with a twisted saviour complex. It’s essentially exposition delivered in expert fashion. That too doesn’t change across the rest of the film.
Shiva Baby is based on its prodigious director Emma Seligman‘s thesis short film of the same name. She mentions in the Q&A on MUBI (available after the film) that the elevator pitch of the film’s plot occurred to her like the set-up of a joke: girl meets her sugar daddy at a shiva. Indeed, it’s about as much information that one should need if they don’t like to go into films completely blind. At the same time, it’s a film that tackles too many ideas to even mention summarily, with a chaos that embodies the spirit of indie cinema.
Danielle, a young gender studies (?) student is going through the rite of passage that is young adulthood. She has parents who do not understand her bisexuality or what she’s studying and wish she would do something more pragmatic, yet they’re proud of how good she is at it. At the eponymous shiva, all hell breaks loose when she realises that her handsome sugar daddy is a former colleague of her dad’s and is married, with a baby, to a successful entrepreneur, a ‘shiksa’ no less, which makes the otherwise all-Jew gathering treat her (the wife) with a certain degree of acrimony. To add to Danielle’s distress, Maya, an old flame, is also present.
Every website where information on this film is available lists it as a comedy, and it isn’t entirely wrong to say so, but it’s too limiting. That classification is like saying that Crime and Punishment is a story about a murder. It’s a film that straddles the line between a comedy, a psychological thriller and an out-and-out horror film, the last one especially for anyone about to take their first steps into adulthood. What Seligman does excellently is pour her influences into this film, which never become readily apparent. There’s a deftness to her craft that seems uncanny for a first time feature filmmaker. She lingers on moments of extreme discomfort like Cassevetes would. Danielle’s paranoia is like that of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, though Max is no Mrs. Robinson, sadly. Danielle’s cluelessness, at times, is like that of a Noah Baumbach protagonist. These are just some of the few influences that are interspersed throughout the film whose interpretation is left entirely to us, never at any moment becoming too visible at all.
Watching this film is like being on a flight that’s experiencing heavy turbulence after a heavy meal while a baby cries incessantly in the background. It’s discomforting to a degree where throwing up only feels like a matter of time. It’s not surprising that halfway into the film, Danielle, who had shown up properly groomed for the occasion, looks like her mental constitution is in tatters, manifested in her bedraggled physical state. The feeling of claustrophobia, anxiety and unease is a synergy of a number of technical choices. And in fact, there is a crying baby who keeps piling on the feeling of malaise experienced throughout the film.
The decision to shoot this with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio is a prudent one because it renders that sense of entrapment that Danielle is going through. To go for a mostly handheld style of cinematography amplifies that sensation of trying to clutch at whatever is available to gain some ground during a disaster, when coupled with the aspect ratio. It is a chamber film that has the energy of a thriller with a ticking time bomb as she tries to ensure that the scandalous nature of her life does not come apart within a few hours. The horror aspect, though mostly psychological, has a few direct manifestations. In one scene, Danielle comes across some of the characters in the hallway and it’s shot with animatedly zoomed in faces and a yellow hue that for a moment is confusing as to whether it’s reality or a nightmare.
It would be a crime to not mention the soundtrack by Ariel Marx. Given the film’s premise, a playfully goofy set of tracks is the expectation. Instead, what is presented is a reverberating onslaught of string instruments that is disconcerting, to say the least. Throughout the film, the music is gleefully coarse. An excellent use of it is when during a moment of immense self-consciousness, Danielle is trying to make her way out into the open when an obnoxious aunt stops her. The music creeps in like the anxiety attack she is having and keeps foreshadowing something terrible on its way, only to lead us to a completely unexpected confrontation with Maya, without any music.
But beyond all these excellent technical achievements, there’s a story here that is immensely potent in its presentation of the dilemma of millennials and gen-z kids. Danielle is hardly an empathetic character but she is an extremely relatable person for anyone within that age group, regardless of their gender and sexuality. She is drifting through her early 20s, overcome with a lassitude that does not generally set in until one is in one’s middle age. And it makes sense given how much she has experienced, as most young people do today because of the rapidity of the world around them, within such a short life. There’s a moment when she refuses a seemingly lucrative job – which is obviously to spite the person offering it, but within that refusal hides a much deeper understanding that Seligman has of young people. Danielle is well aware of the possibilities that life has in store for her, and her own acumen, which makes it clear to her that to settle for a job just to earn some money is not the way out as it once used to be. It is not a logical or even sympathetic sentiment, but it is one that is shared by millions today and to see it on screen without a shadow of judgement is lovely.
Shiva Baby is the kind of astounding debut that both inspires and demotivates aspiring filmmakers with its brilliance and creativity. It is at once a condensed look at navigating the tricky waters of young adulthood through a single occasion and also an amusingly dark satire on family gatherings. In fact, after a while, we actually are made to forget that we are at a mourning ceremony given the nature of gossip and general lack of grief prevailing at the shiva. By the end, when all hope is lost and we are expecting a dark ending that would be Danielle’s undoing, we are instead given something much less brutal. It does not end happily or even with any positive hint at how things will pan out for her. Instead, what Seligman gives us is that tap on the head that makes us realise that as long as we have someone or something to fall back on, we can make it through rough times. And that is the true heart of this film: its reassurance that sometimes a breakdown is only a breakdown.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.