- Words Miriam Balanescu
Emma Seligman’s debut feature is a whistle-stop tour of the anxieties of the digital generation, which feels both timely and worryingly relatable.
Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s first film, which chooses a Jewish wake as the setting for a bloodbath of awkwardness, delights in grim, gradually revealed ironies that get under your skin. Stand-up star Rachel Sennott plays Danielle, a twenty-something freshly graduated student, who departs straight from her sugar daddy’s apartment to a shiva in memory of a relative who – ironically – she can hardly remember.
“I think it’s really great to support females – in particular, female entrepreneurs,” her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari) says as he slips a pricey bracelet around Danielle’s wrist. Little does Danielle know that later Max will also turn up to the shiva, with his female entrepreneur wife and their infant child in tow. Also at the wake happens to be Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, Maya, played by Booksmart’s Molly Gordon.
It’s hard to imagine this situation being anything other than a Gen-Z young woman’s calamity. More reports of students and young women turning to sex work are populating the internet, and subscription service OnlyFans only recently emerged onto the general radar. Even though sugaring has long been around, the increasing digitization of sex work, as well as relationships, is frequently alluded to in the film. Along the way, Seligman dutifully nods to other defining features of the current generation – from a woeful jobs market to the struggle for bi-visibility. That said, Shiva Baby is a comedy of chaos akin to a Shakespeare play – think characters bumping into each other at all the wrong moments, missing phones instead of missing magic flowers, and very messy love triangles.
All of the nowness of the film is set into comical relief by the traditional setting in which Danielle’s meltdown takes place, as well as the less-than-progressive views of her parents. The pair are constantly pushing her towards a safe and stable job and relationship. Relatives are constantly haranguing her about her weight, making even the wake’s buffet, its bagels, and rugelach, an intrusive presence in the film.
Fretting over the job prospects of their daughter, Danielle’s parents rush to introduce her to Max, her sugar daddy, unaware that the two are very much acquainted. Later, they will press Max’s “Shiksa princess” – so termed by Danielle’s mother (Polly Draper), meaning a non-Jewish person – to offer Danielle a placement in one of her offices. These moments are excruciatingly relatable. Many among us will be familiar with the agony of pushy parents trying to land us opportunities through the least subtle means possible. In the social media age, getting a leg up from mum and dad is also more mocked than ever before.
With the current job market crisis for graduates, Shiva Baby is all-too timely. Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, Maya, is about to go to law school, while Danielle, who “doesn’t have a major”, is adrift and under pressure. In the familiar family setting, relatives fire question after question about what’s next, to which Danielle has no good answer. Danielle studied “Business of Gender”, which is interestingly a constant source of anxiety for her mother: “Look, sweetheart, feminism isn’t exactly what I call a career.”
This is part of another key question raised in the film: how best can one be a woman? Max’s wife, who is frequently insulted in the film (and unfairly so), is dubbed a “girlboss” by Danielle. Through Danielle’s eyes, women are seen as dichotomized internet tropes – her mother is the bickering housewife, Maya is the too well-behaved young woman and Max’s wife is the scorned woman-who-has-it-all. Despite Danielle’s commitment to feminism, she still, as Maya points out, funnels misogyny toward Max’s wife. Watch out for spoilers ahead, but the deep irony at play here is that it’s actually the wife’s money paying for the sugar daddy’s gifts, as well as funding his bachelor pad. Despite seeming to be “winning at life”, she is actually losing.
Bisexuality is also used in the film as another signpost of a generational rift. Seligman, who is bisexual herself, made the film foremostly with bisexual female viewers in mind. Danielle constantly shakes off frustrating comments from her mother about relationships with women as a phase of “experimentation”. She never quite manages to have her sexuality taken seriously. Biphobia and bi-visibility are still widespread issues; with so few bisexuals on screen, it’s hardly surprising. In this way – though it is a shame it has taken so long – Shiva Baby actually raises some landmark issues, and hopefully will go some way to quashing them.
Having her sexuality denied, and being paraded in hope of job offers, are just two ways in which Danielle’s agency and independence are snatched away as a young woman. The tension-amplifying flick shows a constant tussle for the twenty-year-old to assert herself, when so often her power – all for reasons related to her age – is diminished. Shiva Baby has already been praised for its “refreshingly neutral” portrayal of sex work. In an existence that offers Danielle little means of control, she sees sex work as one avenue of empowerment. Since her parents pay her bills, sex work is solely her own choice, not a necessity.
Despite being rooted in life in a Jewish community, Shiva Baby feels universal. Seligman was inspired by Jewish romantic comedies such as Crossing Delancey, Keeping the Faith, and Kissing Jessica Stein in making the film. It is a shame that the cast is predominantly non-Jewish, including Sennott, while the same actors ironically fling insults about the non-Jewishness of other characters.
Though a comedy, Shiva Baby has moments that feel more unnerving, terrifying even, than funny. “Emma and I were talking about how being a young woman is a horror movie,” Sennott told Dazed. Scored by Ariel Marx, spine-crawling strings judder relentlessly up into climaxes and breaking points, dramatizing the oppression of being a young woman today. Even the baby’s screeches – all improvised – feel conspiratorial. Though it is certain to make you cringe, Shiva Baby is a triumph.