Shiva Baby (2020)

There is nothing that screams 'watch me' like a film with a short runtime does — and this is the shallow reason I decided to watch Emma Seligman's feature debut, Shiva Baby. Thankfully, the short runtime isn't the only great thing about the film as it turned out to be such a compelling, and beautifully poignant coming-of-age comedy.

The story follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young bisexual Jewish woman who is about to graduate from college but is yet to find a career path. When we first meet her, she is having sex with an older man, Max (Danny Deferrari), who turns out to be her sugar daddy who she uses to fund her studies. 

Danielle soon leaves to attend the shiva of a family friend with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). Right away, she is attacked by members of the local Jewish community as they demand to know about her career and relationship status, and never miss the chance to compare her to Maya (Molly Gordon), her childhood friend and high-school girlfriend who everyone adores and is heading to law school. 

Just when Danielle thinks things can't get any worse, Max shows up at the shiva, and, following her parents' introduction, she learns that not only he is married to a beautiful businesswoman, Kim (Dianna Agron), but that he also has a child.

This is a twist revealed within the first fifteen minutes; the remaining hour is a compelling series of more or less weird and awkward interactions filled with dark humour, interactions that keep you glued on the screen as you keep guessing who knows what. All the while, Seligman delivers an original coming-of-age story as Danielle's self-discovery happens over the course of a couple of hours of one single day, while also showing the subtle and unsubtle ways people share their unrequested opinions about a woman's body — whether it's critiquing her appearance or the use she makes of it. 

Shive Baby also features well-written characters. While she doesn't exactly come across as likeable, Danielle is a very sympathetic lead, and one I could relate to. Not because I am a bisexual Jewish woman in her early 20s — which I am not — but because I too am struggling to find my way, my path in life. Because I too, like Danielle, know the feeling of being one person with family and a completely different one out in the world; and chances are you do too. I also love that Seligman uses the character to show what most bisexuals go through on a daily basis, with their identity constantly invalidated and dismissed as experimenting. Sennott gives a great performance as Danielle, delivering both the character's feelings and wry humour. 

The supporting characters are also quite interesting and memorable, but there's one that stands out, Dianna Agron's Kim as Seligman wrote her in a very sympathetic way as opposed to the unlikeable caricature most men would have written. 

With her direction, Seligman does a terrific job at capturing the increasing anxiety Danielle feels, the feeling of walls closing in on her, the struggle to catch her breath; she achieves this with an intense, horror-like score by Ariel Marx and tight close-ups. 

Ultimately, Shiva Baby is a refreshing coming-of-age with characters we care for. A comedy that will make you laugh, cry and smile. 

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