With a feature film debut like this, director Emma Seligman certainly has a promising career ahead of her.
“Shiva Baby,” which opens at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center this Friday, is quite the ride. It follows a young woman named Danielle in the waning days of her college career. She’s getting ready to graduate, and when she attends a Jewish funeral service with her family, it’s all anyone will ask her about. Well, that and if she has a boyfriend.
It’s that second question that makes “Shiva Baby” such an uncomfortable and unforgettable film to watch, because though Danielle tells her family she isn’t seeing anyone, she leaves out the fact that she has a sugar daddy named Max back at her university. To make matters worse, Max shows up at this funeral service as a friend to another family, and he brings his wife and baby with him. Additionally, Danielle’s ex-girlfriend is at this funeral, taking the awkwardness of the whole situation to another level.
To recap, Danielle is at a family funeral, hiding the fact that she’s sleeping with a man who she just found out has a wife and child, all while avoiding her ex-girlfriend and being bombarded by family members she barely knows about her life post-graduation.
It’s an anxiety-inducing situation, and Seligman really plays up the stress of the circumstances whenever she can. She does this by framing and presenting the situation as chaotically as possible. The film is jam-packed with extreme close-ups of the characters and complex, layered dialogue that often has multiple characters trying to speak over one another. The frantic musical score from Ariel Marx adds to all this, and the result is an endlessly anxious and disorienting film that plays with meaty concepts such as societal and familial expectations.
One of the most surprising aspects of “Shiva Baby” is the length, as the movie is only an hour and 17 minutes long. However, because the film keeps the viewer on edge from start to finish, that length feels more like a normal two-hour runtime. There is so much jammed into this relatively brief film, and the constant quick pace of the film makes it feel all the more chaotic.
Carrying this whole film on her back is actress Rachel Sennott, who plays Danielle.
The camera is almost always with Danielle. With the exception of a couple quick asides, every moment of this story is told through Danielle’s perspective. If Sennott didn’t have the acting chops to carry a film like this, the whole thing would’ve easily collapsed under its own weight. Thankfully though, Sennott’s performance was stellar. I’ve never seen her act in anything before, but after this one performance, I am convinced she could be an acclaimed actress in the making. She was so perfectly able to capture and portray the anxiety Danielle was feeling while trying to hold herself together and maintain some sense of professionalism at this family funeral. That’s a tough emotional line to walk, and Sennott did it effortlessly.
“Shiva Baby” was a fantastic directorial debut from Seligman. If she keeps producing films of this quality, she’ll become a critical sensation in no time. Despite the chaotic nature woven so deeply into “Shiva Baby,” Seligman was able to keep the film tightly focused on its lead character and her emotional turmoil. With solid performances and an excellent musical score to boast, “Shiva Baby” is a film I’m sure people will be buzzing about on Twitter for years.