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NewFest Film Review: ‘Shiva Baby’ Stokes the Comical Growing Pains of Your Early Twenties

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For many people, your early twenties are at once a hopeful and anxiety-ridden stage of your life. Particularly if you are a college student or graduate, there can be either a sense of endless possibilities or disillusionment when your big plans don’t come to fruition. That latter state of mind is primarily what Danielle (Rachel Sennott) experiences, as the distressed protagonist in Emma Seligman’s devilishly funny comedy Shiva Baby.

Indeed, Danielle is a recognizably lost soul. As she struggles to complete a college degree – a combination of media and gender studies – with uncertain job prospects, her outlook is increasingly pessimistic. In the meantime, she gets by through babysitting gigs, the support of her parents and the generosity of her financially stable male lover Max. But this comfortable facade is torn down when her parents drag her to a traditional shiva gathering to mourn a deceased relative. Feeling the weight of expectations from her prying Jewish family and their friends, the situation is compounded by the unexpected arrival of her ex-girlfriend and Max. To make matters worse, he arrives with an undisclosed wife and child in tow.

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Seligman milks the subsequent awkwardness for all its worth throughout Danielle’s claustrophobic ordeal. Viewers with overly involved relatives will surely be triggered by the unsolicited comments about her weight and endless questioning about her education and career. And things get worse when she gets called out for the illusion of law school success she created for Max.

As this tense situation threatens to reveal all of Danielle’s secrets, horror movie-worthy sound effects accentuate the nightmarish atmosphere. The humiliation is written all over Sennott’s face, who carries the film with her deeply felt performance. While much of the comedy is at her character’s expense, her own comic timing also shines through in empty condolences, stress eating and drinking and sarcastic barbs directed towards her ex-girlfriend (played by Molly Gordon).

Indeed, Seligman’s sharp screenplay entertains audiences with a droll sense of humor amid the central premise’s second hand embarrassment. And the writing reveals deeper layers through a moving mother-daughter relationship that gradually exposes Danielle’s insecurities. Polly Draper is perfect as Danielle’s perceptive mother, who is equal parts overbearing and comforting.

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Ultimately, viewers may find themselves losing sympathy for Danielle however. As she exacerbates her problems with a few questionable actions, she begins to test your patience. And yet, you can’t quite turn your eyes away from her misfortunes. Her flaws make her, and by the extension the film, all the more relatable.

SCORE: ★★★

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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  1. Shiva Baby is yet another mega-racist movie, casting the Jewish Dianna Agron ”for the second time” as a non-Jewish foil to a Jewish character (played by non-Jewish Rachel Sennott). Polly Draper and Danny Deferrari aren’t Jewish either.

    I wish casting directors would memorize this list before making movies like this:

    Actors with two Jewish parents: Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bar Refaeli, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Adam Brody, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Erin Heatherton, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Gregg Sulkin, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Esti Ginzburg, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Margarita Levieva, James Wolk, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Michael Vartan, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Julian Morris, Asher Angel, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Dan Hedaya, Emory Cohen, Corey Haim, Scott Mechlowicz, Harvey Keitel, Odeya Rush, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of his parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Timothée Chalamet, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Judah Lewis, Brandon Flynn, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jewish and/or identify as Jewish: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zac Efron, David Corenswet, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Andrew Garfield, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr., Sean Penn, and Ed Skrein were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer, Chris Pine, Emily Ratajkowski, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Finn Wolfhard are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

    • Hi Dee. Thanks for the comment. A few things:

      1. Several of the people you’ve listed are deceased, so I doubt casting directors would be able to land them.

      2. Perhaps it’s a difference in opinion, but someone’s personal faith shouldn’t dictate whether they get a role or not. Seems very different from nationality, ethnicity, gender, etc, since religion can be a choice. You can convert to or from a religion. Just my two cents.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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