Shiva Baby @ image + nation

Another film which has made its rounds around the globe in film festivals. Starting way back in 2018 at the SXSW film festival as a short film, it has now evolved into a feature where it debuted at the 2020 SXSW film festival. Since then it has slowly but surely sprouted legs. Also, another one which has plenty of buzz around it. This time I think that can be squarely placed on the shoulders of the writer/director Emma Seligman, a Canadian now based in New York making her debut. With this one film, despite its small scope and budget (a mere $250,000), she demonstrates herself to be a first class storyteller. Someone who can get a ton out of a rather simple story and place actors in a position in which they can shine.

When you think of the fact that all the enjoyment you got from watching the film was from a shiva?!? Well, that is incredible! Plus you could have never predicted the direction it was going to take after watching the first scene. Totally changes in style, tone and look after those first five minutes. Definitely the sign of a confident filmmaker.

A young woman and a man are having sex in the living room of a great New York apartment. As it is ending her phone rings. The two exchange a couple of words and then she gets fully dressed. Listening to the voicemail, it is a message from her mother reminding her that she had promised to attend a funeral service that morning but had missed it. Her mother does still want her to come with she and her father to the shiva.

Switching gears quickly Danielle (Rachel Sennott – Tahara) heads off to meet her parents for the shiva. They are parking the minivan outside with her mom Debbie (Polly Draper – from television’s Thirtysomething) yelling at Joel (Fred Malamed – A Serious Man, In a World…) when Dani meets up with them.

Inside things go from awkward – Dani trying to avoid childhood friend Maya (Molly Gordon – Booksmart, Good Boys) for some reason, having to deal with the constant nagging about her career future by her parents and also admitting to family friends that she does not really have a declared major or career path nor a boyfriend – to unsettling when the man she was having sex with hours ago appears at the shiva.

Max (Danny Deferrari – appeared in episodes of Pan Am and Law & Order) is soon joined by his wife (Dani did not know he was married) Kim (Dianna Agron – from television’s Glee) and their baby. All this is too much for Dani. She begins to act really weird and her behaviour is attracting attention, particularly from her mother. Plus there is still the whole Maya thing.

Though this is primarily a Jewish story, it is one which is so accessible that all can enjoy and relate to the goings on. Young women. The pressures they are under. Especially today. It might also be doubly so within different ethnicities or culture/religious groups. Women are supposed to be able to do it all – study, have a great career and marry well. Who has the time or energy to excel at all of that? Precious few, I say. While still young, women see this on the horizon and it can be rather overwhelming. Though this is largely a film which tends towards comedy, there is enough real life substance there which allows it to hit its mark.

As such many young women look for validtation through sex. Dani is, despite her seemingly confident nature, crushed when she realizes that Max does not really have feelings for her. That he has a whole other life, a baby and a beautiful, successful wife. Air goes totally out of the Dani balloon. Plus there is the fact that she is a somewhat out bisexual which muddies the waters. Does she actually like men/Max or is she really in love with Maya/women? But knows because of her religion what is expected of her – traditional marriage and a family. Her bisexuality will also make her an outsider in her own community. The world she has constructed all comes crashing down around Dani when it becomes apparent it is a farce.

While some might compare Seligman’s style to Woody Allen’s this would be a mistake. Yes, the world she has constructed is a Jewish one, the dialogue is sharp and witty and there is a befuddlement in the middle about sex and identity, but Seligman definitely has a very different voice. Especially with the fact that her film paints a rather realistic picture of women and their lives.

The largely female cast are all wonderful. No matter young or older or bit part or lead. Each handles the dialogue wonderfully, especially Draper and Sennott. They really give an accurate and nuanced depiction of the complicated mother-daughter relationship. Draper was definitely a rediscovery for me. She had dropped off my fim/television radar pretty much since the early 90s with Thirtysomething. She has worked continuously since, but this was really her reemergence for me.

The film is supposed to have a theatre release in 2021, here’s to hoping that happens because it certainly deserves it.

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