Being spoiled can be stifling, as Danielle (Rachel Sennott) demonstrates in writer-director Emma Seligman’s assured debut feature Shiva Baby. College senior Danielle is spoiled by her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari), who bestows her with cash and jewelry after their morning bedroom romp. He thinks he’s helping her pay for law school, but she’s really experimenting with sex work as a sort of escape from being spoiled by her overbearing Jewish parents, who actually pay all of her living expenses while she gets her degree in gender studies and attempts to figure out what to do with her life.
Those two worlds collide a short time later, when Danielle heads to the suburbs for a shiva (a Jewish post-funeral reception), and discovers that Max is there, too. It turns out that, years ago, Max worked with Danielle’s father Joel (Fred Melamed), and Danielle’s meddling parents are eager to introduce her to Max (or anyone else, really) to find her gainful post-graduation employment. On top of that, Danielle also discovers that Max is married, to the stunningly beautiful and poised (but not Jewish) Kim (Dianna Agron), and they have an 18-month-old child.
And as if that weren’t awkward enough, Danielle is surprised to see that her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is at the shiva, although since they grew up in the same close-knit Jewish community, Maya’s presence isn’t quite as unlikely as Max’s. Danielle spends the rest of the movie’s short running time ping-ponging among Maya, Max, Kim, and various prying relatives, all of whom have very strong opinions about Danielle’s appearance or her love life or her career prospects or all three.
Expanding on her 2018 short film, Seligman keeps the characters in constant motion around her cramped single location, never giving Danielle a moment of peace, even when she hides herself in the bathroom. The jittery score by Ariel Marx and the claustrophobic cinematography by Maria Rusche give Shiva Baby the unsettled feeling of a horror movie, and for Danielle, the situation is nearly as terrifying as being chased by a serial killer. She’s carefully compartmentalized all of these different areas of her life, and she’s completely incapable of handling their unexpected convergence.
She’s also unwilling to just admit that she’s lied or made poor choices, even as Maya keeps attempting to reconcile with her. At the same time, she remains sympathetic, as a young woman still finding her way in life and not helped by the massive expectations of her extended family. As intense as the movie can be, there are tender moments as well, and Seligman reserves at least a little sympathy for even the most grating, self-absorbed characters. It would be easy to compare Shiva Baby to the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, another anxiety-inducing movie about a self-destructive Jew, but Shiva Baby is gentler and funnier, and Seligman is more generous to her protagonist than the Safdies were to Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner.
Sennott also has a more graceful, less abrasive presence, although Danielle can often be infuriating. Melamed and Polly Draper are very funny as Danielle’s misguided but well-meaning parents, and Agron brings exactly the right kind of ice-queen passive-aggressiveness to a woman who’s seen by nearly everyone around her as an interloper. Gordon is more understated, but that gives Maya the proper contrast to the manic Danielle. It’s clear that the bisexual Danielle has more than a transactional connection to Max, but her bond with Maya is much stronger, and Seligman ends the cacophonous movie on a quiet note that illustrates the depth of emotion beneath Danielle’s harried exterior.