REVIEW: We Should All Be Kvelling Over ‘Shiva Baby’

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Shiva baby

Shiva Baby is the feature-length version of Emma Seligman’s film about Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who runs into both her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) and her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) at a shiva her parents dragged her to.

Have you ever run into your sugar daddy and your ex-girl friend at the same shiva for somebody your parents dragged you to? No? I mean, me neither, but trust me, you absolutely have if you’ve watched Shiva Baby. The movie is, on the surface, an amalgamation of every New York, Ashkenazi Jewish stereotype in the book. Nagging parents who yell at and demean one another; older family members who obsess over how you look, how much you’ve eaten, and whether you’re married yet and to whom; constant comparisons to other, more successful friends and family; and fixations on jewelry, babies, and again, food. And the casting and set is just perfect. If you told me that was my own extended family in that house, I wouldn’t even bat an eye and just assume it was true.

It’s not a uniquely Jewish experience, but it’s absolutely a quintessentially Jewish one. Were it written and directed by somebody not Jewish, it could be antisemitic. The amount of film time dedicated to repeating these tropes is nearly nauseating. But in the hands of excellent Jewish direction and acting, it becomes the point. And a point very well made.

Danielle is a near-college graduate, and every inch of her life is either under the constant judgment or assumption that there is going to be judgement. What degree she’ll earn, what kind of jobs she’ll get, who she’s dating, and basically everything about her autonomy and future are treated by her parents and extended family as decisions that must satisfy their rigid standards before she may proceed with them.

If asked, I’m sure they would all claim they aren’t judging Danielle, and that she may do whatever makes her happy. And they probably truly believe they are only being supportive. But it’s an utterly anxiety-inducing state to live in as a young adult; feeling like every last bit of your life needs your parents’ approval, even though it doesn’t, because they’ve spent your life making you feel as though it does.

Shiva Baby perfectly illustrates the way parents pass their anxieties inadvertently onto their children. The long, painfully drawn-out scenes of awkward interactions between Danielle and her parents who absolutely will not take a hint and drop a conversation, while exaggerated, induced so much anxiety in me because of how painfully real and relatable it was. 

I can’t say I’ve ever been in the exact same conversations as Danielle, or trapped in this particular scenario, but the way she slowly breaks down over the course of an hour is utterly reminiscent of so much of my own experience that I had to pause the movie several times over to laugh. Laughing because the movie is acted and directed so as to make everything into a comedy of errors. But also laughing because I just had no other outlet for how entirely uncomfortable every new turn made me.

But this total discomfort and anxiety, egged on by the noxious string score constantly pumping in the background, is why I absolutely loved this movie. I’ve never been trapped in a shiva with my ex-girlfriend and my sugar daddy (though I’ve definitely been stuck in a bad shiva scenario before), but I completely and entirely felt myself in Danielle the entire time. I think any and every Jewish young adult who has a family that at all resembles hers will too.

Something I’m just curious about is whether there were intentional changes made between the original short film in a few spots or if they were just circumstantial. Particularly, I think Deferrari is a very distinctly different casting choice for the role of Max over the original actor. While all the characters are changed except for Danielle, and their changes could all have different implications for the type of stereotypes they fulfill, the change in Max was from somebody who strikes me as an AEPi bro who was hot in his days as a camp counselor to a totally nebbish type whose main attraction is that he’s got a pulse. The other big difference is at the film’s end. In the original, the mourners are reciting Ashrai, whereas in the feature film they are reciting Kaddish. I’m curious if this change was made because Kaddish is more instantly recognizable to more people, or if there was a thematic reason to make the change. Or if the actor playing the rabbi just chose that prayer for the scene themself?

The one issue I take with the movie is that the family is seemingly so conservative. While I’m sure that many Jewish families like this are just as uncomfortable now with non-heterosexual “funny business” as this one is, I don’t know too many these days. And given the movie intentionally over-exaggerates Jewish familial stereotypes, it feels like it’s making an implication that this conservativeness is a norm, even if itself exaggerated in the film. While I said before that this movie is made with a Jewish audience in mind, this is the one depiction I don’t feel comfortable with letting loose onto a general audience, especially when lined up against so many of the other well-known stereotypes mentioned before. It doesn’t put the movie or its caricaturization in poor taste with me necessarily, but it does make me less willing to recommend to non-Jewish friends, if I’d even recommend it to them in the first place.

For the rest of us though, this film is a must-watch. Not just because it’s witty and endearing, but because it’s empowering. And sure, it’s empowering because it’s about a young adult who claims autonomy over her body and romance. Danielle clearly doesn’t need the money, she’s still on her parents’ payroll. Sex work for her, as she describes it, is about exploring and holding power, especially in a life where she is so entirely stifled by her parents. But it’s more than that too. 

Shiva Baby empowering because it shows how those of us trapped in cycles of anxiety and the need to fulfill others’ expectations can learn to live for ourselves. For Danielle, claiming autonomy over sex and romance is an end itself, but it’s also a means to a greater end of total self-actualization, despite the ways her family might otherwise keep her from feeling free to be her entire self. At the Shiva, she endures judgement from her parents about her relationship with Maya, judgement from Maya over how their relationship ended, and judgement from herself as she basks in loathsome comparison to Max’s wife Kim (Diane Agron). She’s a gorgeous, successful woman and mother to Max’s child and Danielle cannot help but instantly hate her for it all. The movie doesn’t offer any answers necessarily to its audience for how to achieve self-actualization. But in the end, Shiva Baby makes it clear, your world does not have to revolve around what you think others expect of you. Sex is great, but have you ever tried discovering you can be more than the sum of what you think others expect of you?

Watching Shiva Baby was not easy, but it was very much worth it. The catharsis of laughing off some of my anxiety watching Danielle in a relatable, but far more anxiety-inducing, scenario than I could ever imagine was great and I absolutely hope I can find this film in a theater near me when it is safe. That said, I hereby motion to immediately induct Shiva Baby into the canon of essential Jewish films.

Shiva Baby is streaming now on VOD.


Shiva Baby
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    Rating - 9/10
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TL;DR

Watching Shiva Baby was not easy, but it was very much worth it. The catharsis of laughing off some of my anxiety watching Danielle in a relatable, but far more anxiety-inducing, scenario than I could ever imagine was great and I absolutely hope I can find this film in a theater near me when it is safe. That said, I hereby motion to immediately induct Shiva Baby into the canon of essential Jewish films.