Written by Anna Harrison
“One word: plastics.”
Except, in writer/director Emma Seligman’s feature debut Shiva Baby, what was one word to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate has become several to college senior Danielle (Rachel Sennott): law school, grad school, media, actress, entrepreneur, clerk. A whole host of options, many of them infused with that infuriatingly vague business lingo—what does a clerk even do, anyways—present themselves to Danielle, offered up by well-meaning friends and family members who cannot understand her indecision and paralysis. She’s created her own major at Columbia University focusing on women’s and gender studies, a fancy and erudite degree that lacks the assembly line nature of say, a business degree. That’s all well and good until faced with the issue of becoming financially independent when you have practically nothing in the “real world” to put on your resume. (No, in case you were asking, I, a senior in film studies at a prestigious university known for its business and pre-med students, did not relate to this.)
Faced with these choices and the looming prospect of actual adulthood, Dani has seized on something she can control: her sexuality. Dani has become a sugar baby, faking orgasms to Max (Danny Deferrari) in exchange for money and nice jewelry. Things seem to be going well enough until Dani’s parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed, both great), drag her along to a shiva gathering, a Jewish mourning event. Dani’s ex, Maya (Maya Gordon), appears there, to Dani’s shock and dismay (aside from a few jokes about experimenting, barely anything is made out of Dani’s bisexuality; it simply exists), and then the real kicker comes: Max arrives, accompanied by his flawless wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their baby.
As her parents shuffle her around and try to pawn Dani off on someone for an internship or job she doesn’t want, Dani’s eyes keep getting drawn to Maya and to Kim, whom she didn’t know existed until today. Everyone keeps bombarding her with questions, commenting that she seems too thin—“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps”—and Dani, feeling more and more overwhelmed, quickly spirals. Stuck in the same location, confronted by overbearing relatives, crying babies, and hounded by Ariel Marx’s horror-like score, the claustrophobia sets in.
Even with the mounting sense of dread, Shiva Baby remains sharply funny and relatable, and Rachel Sennott’s bitter and witty performance, accompanied by the accomplished supporting cast, helps elevate the film. However, though the film is only just over an hour long, it feels stretched in some places—understandably, since it began its life as a short film. Still, Shiva Baby is an alternatingly funny, awkward, and heartwarming film, and promises excellence from Emma Seligman.