By Nicole Veneto
Though it’s classified as a comedy, Shiva Baby utilizes many of the stylistic trademarks found throughout the horror genre to merge painfully humorous discomfort with suffocatingly atmospheric terror.
Shiva Baby, now available on VoD and playing at Kendall Square Cinema
One COVID casualty I don’t miss the way I probably should is attending large family gatherings. Don’t get me wrong — I love my big, goofy, mixed Italian-American Roman Catholic family, my dad being one of nine siblings (four boys and five girls), amounting to more aunts, uncles, and cousins than I can count. When it comes to Veneto family functions, three things are certain: 1) no matter how much everyone eats there will be leftovers, 2) scratch tickets are the best gift you can give somebody, and 3) I’m going to be asked multiple times what a gender studies degree is and what sort of job I intend to get with it, to which I always find myself thinking, “I don’t know, please stop asking” before giving a vague answer between anxious sips of wine. I know I’m not being judged, but otherwise innocuous questions like these force me to confront the fact that I’ve fallen dramatically short of my own expectations for my future. And don’t even get me started on the questions about my non-existent dating life; to my horror, at the last Veneto wedding pre-COVID, I overheard my uncles teasing my dad that I’d be the next one down the aisle.
Yet this discomfort pales in comparison to the 77-minute panic attack that is Shiva Baby, the acclaimed debut feature from writer-director Emma Seligman. Based on Seligman’s 2018 short of the same name, Shiva Baby fuses the claustrophobic anxiety of mother! with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jewish comedy of errors, resulting in a film that’s as emotionally distressing to watch as it is mortifyingly hysterical to behold. The plot itself is a nightmare scenario: while attending a shiva with her parents Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), college senior Danielle (internet meme queen Rachel Sennott, reprising her role from the short) unwittingly runs into her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), his beautiful blonde #girlboss wife (Dianna Agron), and their perpetually screaming baby, threatening to expose her secret side-hustle as a sugar baby to her entire extended family. Further complicating matters is the attendance of Danielle’s ex-girlfriend/childhood friend Maya (Molly Gordon) who’s quick to catch on that something’s up with her ex besides just keeping her bisexualty under wraps from prying relatives. And pry those relatives do: when they aren’t hounding Danielle about her lucrative “babysitting” gig (her cover for sex work) and non-existent career plans, they’re poking and prodding her like a prize farm animal and gossiping about whether she’s anorexic (as Debbie eloquently describes it, “You look like Gwenyth Paltrow on food stamps!”).
Though it’s classified as a comedy, Shiva Baby utilizes many of the stylistic trademarks found throughout the horror genre to merge painfully humorous discomfort with suffocatingly atmospheric terror. (The trailer even sells the film as an exercise in A24-style psychological horror, which it arguably is if you find vicarious embarrassment as agonizing as a knife murder.) It’s a prime example of what I like to call “horror-by-proxy,” an approach similarly taken up by Alex Ross Perry’s melodramatic thriller Queen of Earth and in Ari Aster’s viral WTF short The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.
Before Shiva Baby even starts, the shriek of discordant strings blares over the production credits as if to queue us into an opening murder scene. So it’s rather jarring when the diegetic sound of moaning and skin slapping against skin kicks in and the first thing we see is Danielle having incredibly awkward sex with Max on his couch. Composer Ariel Marx’s furiously plucking strings accompany every scandalously mortifying plot development: his score is as indispensable to Shiva Baby’s tone as Bernard Herrmann’s musical stings are to Psycho. Likewise, Maria Rusche’s cinematography filters and frames the events onscreen like a horror film with uncomfortably tight close-ups on Danielle’s increasingly frazzled expressions. As the camera moves with Danielle’s perspective, relatives’ faces turn into distorted fun-house mirror reflections and every turn around a corner risks something (or rather someone) jumping out at you. When Danielle finally approaches her climactic breaking point, the camera tilts and twirls around the claustrophobic action closing in on her as if she’s caught in a delirious fever dream.
Shiva Baby aesthetically situates itself somewhere between Repulsion and It Follows, but Seligman’s screenplay follows the grand tradition of Jewish humor, with its snarky dialogue and innate self-mockery. Stereotypes are affectionately played with for comical dysfunction and Rachel Sennott’s performance as Danielle plays like a femme Larry David, continually digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole with every poor decision and lie she has to keep straight. And, like David’s fictional portrayal of himself, Danielle isn’t wholly faultless for the hair-raising situation she finds herself in — she lies and makes impulsive decisions that end up biting her in the ass later on. It’s eventually revealed that her turn towards sex work isn’t out of economic desperation but out of a desire to make some “easy” money although her upper middle-class parents are already paying for most of her lifestyle (including her apartment, a signifier for class privilege that’s regrettably under critiqued compared to all the casual sexism Danielle is subjected to).
As heart-palpitating as Shiva Baby is, quiet moments of tenderness are sprinkled throughout that provide a welcome contrast to the familial chaos. Despite all her caustic ribbing, Mom Debbie is quick to comfort Danielle — her blouse soaked with Max’s spilled coffee — when she asks “Mommy, are you disappointed in me?” And the fraught relationship between Danielle and Maya (who admits she still has feelings for her) eventually becomes the emotional core of the film. One of the last shots is of Maya taking Danielle’s hand into her lap and intertwining their fingers together, a gesture of comfort and understanding so meaningful in the context of the final scene that I teared up. You don’t have to be Jewish to find Shiva Baby riotously funny, anxiety-inducing, or relatable — in fact, Sennott isn’t even Jewish, she’s Italian-Irish and was raised Catholic just like yours truly. Despite the cultural specificity, Seligman’s debut feature will feel familiar to anyone who has found themselves in a real “fuck my life” situation.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.