In Judaism, a shiva (from the Hebrew word for ‘seven’) is a week-long period of mourning following a funeral, during which time the close family of the deceased sits together at home, and friends and relatives come to pay their respects. It is not exactly a party, and less joyous than a wake, but nonetheless, like many religious rituals, it serves as, among other things, an occasion for social networking, and an opportunity for the community to come together and reinforce its connections and values. In Shiva Baby, those values include a pathological need to gossip and kvetch, a determination to stamp out or cover up any deviation from the prescribed norms, and a passive-aggressive focus on the achievements and direction of the younger generation – all orchestrated by a pushy cohort of alpha matriarchs, and a recessive collection of put-upon menfolk, over platters of bagels, lachs, rugelach and potato salad. For this feature debut of writer/director Emma Seligman, expanded from her 2018 thesis project, is a comic nightmare about the strains and struggles of belonging (or otherwise) in a very culturally specific setting.
Drawn by her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) into attending the shiva for a person she barely remembers, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) has long since strayed from the flock. She never goes to shul, has repeatedly changed her major at college without every finishing a degree, and is deemed too ‘skinny’. “What’s my soundbite again?”, Danielle asks Debbie before they head in. For both mother and daughter know full well the importance of keeping up appearances, and the usefulness of a simple campaigning formula that will deflect anyone attempting to inquire too closely into Danielle’s progress and future prospects. Danielle is well used to concealing the awkward realities of her life from everyone, including her parents. Her high-school fling with Maya (Molly Gordon) is hardly a secret, but has been deemed acceptable just so long as it falls under the umbrella of adolescent ‘experimenting’ and neither of them continues the ‘funny business’. She does not have a boyfriend, as everyone would like her to, but her relationship with sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) – one in which she is emotionally, but also financially, invested – is completely beyond the pale, and must be kept secret at all costs, even from family and friends. So bisexual, sex-positive Danielle lies about everything, claiming that she makes her money on the side babysitting, that her studies are near completion, and that she is set up for various job interviews.
All this comes to a head when first Maya, now successfully in grad school studying law, shows up at the shiva – and then Max, who turns out to have a perfect wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and 18-months-old daughter. And so, for Danielle, the afternoon becomes a hell of conflicting pressures, as all her deceits risk being exposed, and as her own illicit feelings for both Maya and Max become challenged. In a way, it makes good sense that Danielle, Max and Maya should all circle one another at the shiva – because they are all equally outsiders, hyperaware of their failure to fit in. Meretricious Danielle lacks an admissible partner or conventional prospects, Max is married to a shiksa, and Maya is never going to stop being a lesbian – and so they are all caught in this infernal comedy of cringe, as they must negotiate the minefield of their community’s mores and expectations while somehow trying to preserve their own individual identity, however tref it may be.
“Be different than other people,” Maya tells Danielle – but it is hard in this judgmental environment where everyone is constantly insisting on conformity. Accordingly, while very funny, Shiva Baby is also full of pain and stress, capturing all too well the peculiar agony of being Jewish – and of being a misfit.
© Anton Bitel