movie review

Shiva Baby Is a Symphony in Stress

Photo: Utopia

There’s something about a baby’s cry that triggers our primal brains — it’s un-tune-outable, it saw-blades around in our cortex, it drags at our attention. The more we hear it, the more anxious we get. All that raw need! How can we ignore it? Emma Seligman uses that sound like an air-raid siren in her debut feature, Shiva Baby, a perfectly engineered and performed piece of comic cringe. The movie climaxes when the titular “baby” — an NYU student with a sideline in sugar-babying — starts getting screamed at by a real baby. At this point, the movie has already frayed our nerves: Ariel Marx’s score jumps and screeches like a horror soundtrack; our hackles rise at each increasingly awkward situation and embarrassing confrontation. It’s a symphony in the key of anxiety — and as it crescendos, Seligman adds the screaming child. The baby is beside himself! The baby will not be calmed! The sound operates like the cannon in the “1812 Overture”: Nothing makes you jump like the real thing.

By the time Danielle (Rachel Sennott) grapples with that bawling infant, she’s already been on edge for ages. Her parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), have asked her to turn up at a post-funeral gathering for a relation she barely remembers, and despite the fact that she’s just a few days from graduating college, she’s being pretty adolescent about it: reluctant but present, grouchy and submissive and jumpy. Danielle doesn’t know who’s dead, but everyone else knows her. The moment Danielle walks in the door, hands reach out to pat her cheeks, to tug at her waist, to measure how much weight she’s lost since the last time they saw her. The house is full of people who have known her forever — they know whom she went to prom with and how often she goes to synagogue. What they don’t know is that she’s started to dabble in sex work. Danielle has a sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), and much to her horror and surprise, he turns up at the shiva too.

Max can’t stop looking worriedly (or speculatively?) at Danielle as the crowd of mourners surges toward the spread of bagels and lox, but he’s not the only one looking. Her ex-best friend and ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) has returned from college, and Maya’s keen eye can see that Danielle is flustered. Every time Danielle and Max catch eyes, Maya follows Danielle’s gaze and sees Max’s sleek shiksa wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and she assumes Danielle is lusting after her. Danielle’s freak-out accelerates as she learns about Max’s wife, then Max’s baby. The threat of exposure keeps turning into flirtation; the erotic currents among all three turn into turbulence. Sugar baby and sugar daddy keep getting trapped in conversations with Danielle’s actual parents, who are themselves masterpieces of humiliation. Debbie can’t stop wiping shmutz off her daughter’s face; Joel bumbles and fumbles as his wife hisses criticisms at him. He forgets everything, she snipes, ever since the day of their marriage. “Anyone can forget a ring!” he protests, as the camera backs away.

Shiva Baby is the most humid movie you’ve ever seen. The closeness at the shiva, with everyone crowding into small corners in small rooms, is clearly a wet heat. Even with bodies enclosed in black jackets, you can tell sweat is rolling down everyone’s backs; cinematographer Maria Rusche shoots the walls as if they’re slick to the touch. There’s only one scene in the movie not at the house: When we first see Danielle, she’s detaching from sex with Max, and in the cold of his apartment (and his embrace) her hair is smooth and blown out. Whatever heat they’ve generated between them hasn’t made it into her hairline, but once she gets to the shiva, her hair rises, spiraling and curling up, waving lazily like seaweed in a tide.

Which conventions Danielle should break, and which she shouldn’t, isn’t always clear. Should she buck against the older people’s clear discomfort with her bisexuality and her romantic past with Maya? Yes, shove it in their faces; smear it on them like cream cheese. But Danielle’s rudeness doesn’t seem to have a limit. After heavy hints from her parents, the accommodating Kim offers Danielle a job, but she demurs. “I’m not into the whole ‘girlboss’ thing,” she says, snidely. Despite Kim’s presence, she and Max are reckless, each determined to catch the other out. He’s delighted to discover she has no other clients and that her claims of law school were lies; she pounces when she can praise him for “supporting young women entrepreneurs” right in front of his increasingly suspicious wife. For 70 minutes, Danielle is caught in a push me, pull you of wanting to be seen—despite depending on them financially, she wants her parents to stop treating her like a kid—and wanting to move through the room invisibly. Being a child is hellish, but the examples of the adults all around her seem even worse. You’re supposed to grow up … for this?

Seligman’s movie recalls other movies — The Graduate, most intensely, with its interest in the stunned gap between childhood and adulthood, and Uncut Gems, with its protagonist sabotaging herself over and over as the soundtrack pushes the audience toward a sympathetic heart attack. Moodwise and choreographically, it’s as precise as Lovers Rock: It re-creates how people really gather, the specific fluid dynamics of a crowd. Seligman, making her debut feature, exerts instant and impressive control, knowing just how to sustain Danielle’s embarrassment and how to delay it with superbly pitched comedy — Jackie Hoffman as a wry shiva guest, Joel wobbling through the frame, Debbie’s raunchy jokes — that only makes the awkwardness more crushing when it returns.

And it is crushing. The urge to pause the movie and walk around the block was intense. Shiva Baby was originally a short, but Seligman does not throttle back just because she’s extended events to fill 70 minutes. At minute 40, I felt I’d lived a lifetime; at minute 50, I could not actually imagine how my computer and I were going to get through 20 more minutes together. To calm myself down, I tried to notice how so many beautiful performances came together— like the effortless way Sennott melts from sullen to sultry, or how good Gordon is at mimicking Sennott’s defensive posture when they’re together, so they curl at each other like needy little parentheses. I also counted the ways in which the film seems almost exotic in the pandemic era: Imagine a time when you could grieve for a family member together, for instance. But for all my desire to look away, I couldn’t. Danielle is a mess — she’s a bit mean, plenty defensive, reckless, and selfish. But who among us is not the same? She’s young, so she hasn’t worked out how to modulate all those things out of her voice. She cries, and it rivets our attention. All that raw need! How can we ignore it?

Shiva Baby Is a Symphony in Stress