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Note: The writer of this review watched Shiva Baby on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
We all knew a Liz,* right? A girl who sailed from a perfect score on the SAT and the ACT to an Ivy League college to an impressive graduate program to a high-profile job, and who managed to pick up a doting husband and 2.5 perfect children along the way? And if we didn’t know Liz personally, we had to hear about her from our moms, whose coworker’s sister’s daughters were all accepted into law school. Shiva Baby is not about a Liz. It’s about Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student teetering on the brink of graduation who still can’t articulate exactly what she’s majoring in—“gender… business,” she fumbles when pressed by a nosy relative—let alone what she’s going to do once finals are over. There’s a good chance that we all knew a Danielle, too… if we weren’t a Danielle ourselves.
Empowered but extremely confused, Danielle is aware of, and somewhat ambivalent about, her erotic power as a woman in her early 20s. She’s also comfortable in her bisexuality, and her relief valve of choice is compulsive sexual behavior. She has sugar daddy relationships with older men who pay her for sex, not because she needs the money—her parents pay her rent and tuition—but as an act of feminist reclamation. (Maybe? Kind of? She might just be bored.) Opening with an unconvincing orgasm and building to a silent car ride that’s both painfully awkward and kind of sweet, Shiva Baby follows Danielle over one hilariously stressful day as she leaves her sugar daddy’s loft and meets up with her doting, clueless parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), for a shiva, or Jewish post-funeral reception.
Things start out distressingly enough as Danielle is passed from overbearing relation to overbearing relation, all of whom want to know: Is she seeing anyone? She is, of course, but it’s not the kind of thing one discusses with one’s great-aunt, especially not at a funeral. Writer-director Emma Seligman shoots Danielle running this gauntlet of familial expectations like a horror movie, grouping the characters in claustrophobic clusters and cutting between Danielle and the judgmental eyes burning into her as she limply puts food onto a paper plate, then scrapes it back into the bowl. The suspenseful mood is reinforced by Ariel Marx’s screeching score, positively Harry Manfredini-esque at times. And as the day wears on, the filmmaking gets more surreal, culminating in a dizzying sequence that recalls the climax of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (although audiences will be squirming with sympathy, not shock). The result lives at the intersection of a dance number, a chase sequence, and a bottle episode.
Further complicating the situation is Danielle’s high school ex-girlfriend Maya (Booksmart’s Molly Gordon), whose aggressively mixed feelings toward Danielle are one of the few missteps in this confident and witty debut—not because they’re unrealistic, but because they’re under-explored. But Shiva Baby’s mortifying arms race explodes into nuclear levels of discomfort when in walks Max (Danny Deferrari), the sugar daddy in question, with his blonde, beautiful, impeccably put-together wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and their 18-month-old baby in tow. That’s when the dance really begins, as the many lies Max and Danielle have been telling their families, as well as each other, are laid out like the buffet spread on the dining-room table as Max’s baby screams in the background. Just try not to barf.
Seligman’s writing is sharp, laying out the complex histories of, and relationships between, the many characters in naturalistic but surprising ways as they play verbal badminton between bites of lox. (One droll running gag sees Danielle confused about who died, exactly.) The dialogue is further buoyed by veteran character actors like Jackie Hoffman, who hurls the line, “such nice girls,” like a passive aggressive hand grenade. Draper is another standout as Danielle’s mom, needling her daughter about her appearance and ambition but still attentive enough to intuit that something is going on. At the center of it all is Sennott, who plays Danielle as alternately harried, impulsive, defiant, and utterly defeated—a messy, aimless twentysomething cut from the same NYC slacker cloth as Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana.
The style of humor in Shiva Baby can best be described as “sex-positive cringe,” in which the secondhand embarrassment comes less from the sexual situations themselves than our heroine’s collision with polite, conservative society. Danielle is a post-millennial feminist, raised on self-esteem and “girls can do anything” messaging, whose problem is less that no one believes in her abilities and more that she’s not sure what she wants to do with them. With a good education, robust support system, and financial resources to back her up, her potential is limitless. She could be a Liz if she applied herself a little more. But what if she just doesn’t want to?
*Name has been changed to protect the precocious.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Toronto International Film Festival.