Shiva Baby proves to be more than just a Jewish homecoming drama.
Published on August 3, 2021
Rating 4 /5
Homecomings don’t come much more stressful than they do in Shiva Baby. The very concerns of the young protagonist venturing through her stuffy family will no doubt have some appeal across generations. Who hasn’t been to a family reunion where they feel as though they don’t want to be there and can’t relate to anybody? But this new generation in particular feels more pressure than ever to be something more. The intensity is enough to drive anybody to the brink of insanity. Fears are bubbling everywhere. Fear of money, fear of failure, fear of persecution for subversion of social norms, and just fear of not living up to their full potential.
This is pretty much the sensation coursing through Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student who makes a living with a sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari). She studies gender at university and is meeting her family in the suburbs for a funeral. But whose funeral is it? An uncle or cousin? She asks her parents when she arrives but even that task is one she dreads. It doesn’t take long before her well-meaning yet pawing parents try to offer Danielle a job she does not clearly want to accept. She’s also embarrassed to admit that her parents are the ones paying her way through college and board, making her all the more bitter that she may not be capable of making it on her own.
The funeral doesn’t offer much ease or relief. Danielle traverses through a crowded house with all manner of families who want to corner and comment about Danielle. Since they know so little about her, having most of their memories from when she was little, all the standard family prodding comes about. “Why are you so thin?” “What’re you studying?” “What job can you get with gender studies?” Danielle cautiously tries to make her way out of every conversation that is usually diverted into talking about some other family member.
Trying to avoid anything that would cause waves at the party is not easy for Danielle. This is mostly because Max is not only present at this party but his wife and their new baby are there as well. Danielle’s tactics of retreating into the massive food spread are going to be a tougher ordeal, as there are not enough bagels in the world to shove into her mouth to avoid being questioned. Another powerful presence at the party is a girl Danielle fancies and tries to hide her passion but even that is impossible. It’s only behind closed doors where Danielle feels more comfortable and even behind corners when a makeout session can let out some of that boiling steam.
The film is directed in a way so nerve-wracking it could be compared to Uncut Gems in how it tries to induce a panic attack. As Danielle struggles to cope at the funeral, the conversations get louder, her hearing starts dropping, and a rumbling can be felt in her head. Something always seems to piece the tension at some point. It may be a baby crying, some spilled coffee, or a broken vase. These scenes draw attention to Danielle but also give her a certain relief, a break from the monotony of conversations she doesn’t want to engage with at an event she would rather not attend.
Shiva Baby proves to be more than just a Jewish homecoming drama. It’s a remarkable work of exploring sexual frustrations and anxieties of tradition from the fresh director/screenwriter Emma Seligman. The film taps into this clawing desperation that an entire generation can feel compounding their fears of the future, aggravated that for the moment they have to put up with the prodding of a generation who will leave them with little. That desperation makes Shiva Baby as much of a powerful one for being presented with a situation most dismal.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.