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Five Cent Cine: Shiva Baby

Two babies and a shiva

“Shiva Baby” clocks in at 1 hour and 17 minutes, 3 minutes short of the accepted minimum length for a “feature.” Likely no one will wish it longer. 

The film opens in a high-ceilinged, white, spacious and spare loft, with college-age, sensual/pretty, confident Danielle (in an exceptional performance by Rachel Sennott) having satisfying sex with Max (Danny Deferrari), who is significantly older, for money. In a screenplay that’s all about the desire for identity, this is as close as Danielle gets to fulfilling that need (though there’s a later scene, a powerful one involving a bathroom mirror, that also reveals something about the protagonist and her psyche).

Put another way, there’s no “arc” to Danielle’s quest: no learning curve, no self-realization (as in “40-Year-Old Version” [2020]), no epiphany, no deep conversations about coming of age, no life choices to be made (as in “American Graffiti” [1973]), no making of the couple as the credits roll, no plodding along until, somehow, one discovers what one wants to “be” and “do.” Danielle’s at her happiest looking at herself in that mirror, and as a monogamous call girl.

It’s a very different Danielle who arrives with her parents at the “shiva house” to mourn a family friend (which one, she can’t recall) who has died. She’ll be there for all of the next hour, as will we, and as will Max, his cold, blond, beautiful entrepreneurial shiksa wife (Dianna Agron), and their baby, who shares with Danielle the title role of “Baby”; neither is fully developed, and they’re both falling apart. 

Among the 100 or so shiva attendees that are jam-packed into the small rooms of the Brooklyn house are Danielle’s manic father (Fred Melamed, one of the few experienced actors in the cast) and her mother (Polly Draper), who is uncontrollably embarrassed by her daughter’s lack of achievement and murky career path (“Talk to me,” she says to Danielle; “I can’t,” Danielle replies—and she’s right). Danielle’s mother is a Jewish stereotype, yes, but she also stands for a generation of helicopter parents who fail to give their children the space they need to grow up. 

Danielle (Rachel Sennott, center), is constantly trapped by her parents, mother (Polly Draper, right), and father (Fred Melamed).
The relationship between Maya (Molly Gordon), right and Danielle (Rachel Sennott) seems real and poignant.​

Also present is law-school bound Maya (Molly Gordon), as self-confident, focused, and mature as Danielle is anxious, flighty, and unformed, a friend since childhood and, we learn, Danielle’s ex-lover. The other folks at the shiva appear all to be over 70 (or even 80), an endless parade of Jewish women, each compelled to say something about how thin Danielle is (objectively, she seems normal) and how she doesn’t eat enough. “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way,” says one of them in a rare, truly comic, line. And the women all raise questions about Danielle’s meager job prospects. They know what’s best for Danielle; they press upon her physically and emotionally, allowing her no space to find herself. It all could be funny—a comedy of anxiety; instead it borders on horror.

In lieu of a narrative arc that would bring Danielle within reach of a reasonable sense of self, Canadian director Emma Seligman (this is her first feature) offers up something more limited and less worthy: will Danielle’s mother and father, will Maya, will Max’s wife, will everyone discover that Danielle has been sleeping with a married man, that she’s a “whore”? That’s the plot, and we’re with it through the challah, the baked pasta, the Manischewitz, even through the Kaddish. Screeching, atonal music accompanies this melodrama of anguish (included in composer Ariel Marx’s filmography are several TV horror episodes), as if we were watching a slasher film (furtive, anxious glances everywhere), without Freddy.  

Gordon and Sennott are refreshingly distinctive in their roles; the tension Maya and Danielle develop, and whatever reconciliation they experience, seems real and poignant; the handholding in the final scene is a just representation of their past, if not of Danielle’s future. Sennott’s performance—a master class in the gestures and emotions of need and angst—carries the film, and it nearly succeeds in overcoming a string of stereotypes and a plot—will the “secret” be revealed?—that’s weak, insufficient, and too long confined to the shiva house. 

Date: 2020 (released in US, 2021)

Stars: 2.5 (out of 4)

Director: Emma Seligman

Starring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron

Other Awards: 5 wins, 17 nominations

Runtime: 77 minutes

Countries: United States, Canada

Availability: For streaming and purchase on multiple sites, including HBO Max, AppleTV, Amazon Prime and Redbox; for complete information, see JustWatch here.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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