'Shiva Baby': a caustic, claustrophobic study of family and sexuality

Rachel Sennott and Danny Deferrari as the young student, Daielle, who is selling sex to get through
Rachel Sennott (left) as the young student, Daielle, who is selling sex to get through college. Photo supplioed.

Shiva Baby
Written and directed by Emma Seligman
Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron
In cinemas and on-line

A shiva is a Jewish wake, and — in the New York community shown here — an occasion for people to size each other up, gossip and show off their financial success.

In Shiva Baby — a real-time tale of a dreadful shiva — twenty-something Danielle, recently graduated from university, with no life plans, encounters exactly the people she does not want to see.

First, her ex-girlfriend for whom she has mixed feelings. Then, the smug, older man with whom she has been having sex for money. But not just him, his wife and screaming baby, too.

The shiva is like a panopticon. Every move is seen by prying eyes, every gesture dissected by the gossip mongers, nothing is private.

The film reminds me of the 1960s study of the dialectics of family and madness, The Leaves of Spring, by Aaron Esterson, which examines how a young woman was “elected” by her all-enveloping family to act out their dysfunction.

Writer/director Emma Seligman says that she wanted to convey the feeling of being bisexual and under family scrutiny. She hopes that young bisexual women will “feel seen” through the movie.

Shiva Baby is caustic social satire — claustrophobic, but enjoyable.

[The trailer for Shiva Baby can be seen here.]