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‘Shiva Baby’ Review: Adolescence, Bisexual Explorations and a Jewish Family Drama

Young Canadian writer-director Emma Seligman's feature film debut juxtaposes traditional Jewish upbringing with female sexual liberation.

By Neha Kirpal

Shiva Baby, a feature debut from Canadian writer-director Emma Seligman, explores young female sexuality in a light, and sometimes hilarious, way. Available exclusively on the global distributor and curated film streaming service MUBI from June 11, the 77-minute film makes for a timely watch given that June is Pride Month.

The 25-year-old Seligman wrote and directed Shiva Baby, the short film on which the feature is based, in her last year at New York University’s undergraduate film and TV program.

The film premiered at SXSW in 2018, and went on to receive rave reviews at the Woodstock Film Festival, TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, Palm Springs ShortFest, Outfest, Melbourne International Film Festival, the Deauville American Film Festival, and is now a Vimeo Staff Pick.

The film’s protagonist Danielle is played by actor-comedian Rachel Sennott who has been named one of the “Top Comics to Watch” of 2019 by Time Out NY and who has written and starred in her own original shorts including the digital Comedy Central series Ayo and Rachel Are Single.

In Shiva Baby, Danielle is a young bisexual woman studying gender and uses feminism as a lens through which to view her career. At a day-long shiva, a Jewish gathering of friends and family during a time of mourning, she faces a series of uncomfortable encounters.

Faced with her ex-girlfriend, Maya, played by Molly Gordon, she is confronted by her own feelings for her once again. Adding to the confusion, is the appearance of Max, a man she is in a secret relationship with, played by Danny Deferrari, whom she discovers – much to her horror – is married to a successful entrepreneur (played by Dianna Agron), who comes along with their screaming kid in tow.

In writing the story, Seligman was inspired by her personal anxiety about what the future would look like at the time, something that is reflected strongly in her protagonist’s character. “Despite gaining independence and agency through my sexuality in college, I was still very much a child in my parent’s eyes,” she reminisces.

Moreover, having grown up in an insular Jewish community, Seligman chose a shiva – complete with its nosy relatives and gossip – as the setting for her coming-of-age story.

“Family events can be filled with the utmost love and warmth, but they are also pervaded by generational differences that make you question your untraditional or nonexistent career path and your queerness,” she explains.

Like most parents, Danielle’s folks – played by Fred Melamed and Polly Draper – hope that their daughter finds a steady career path and meets a suitable man to marry. Danielle’s mother who knows about her daughter’s adolescent “experimenting” with Maya, warns her about “no funny business”.

Along the way, Danielle is also reminded of her extended awkward phase as a chubby teenager who wore braces and was rejected by a boy at a prom.

Through the film, Seligman aims to make young women feel seen and heard in the contradictory, suffocating pressures and insecurities inflicted upon them. “For me, trying to be both a nice Jewish girl with a career ahead of her and an independent young woman with a liberated sexuality has been the greatest balancing act of my life,” she says.

Will Danielle and Maya comb through their differences? The film, with an eclectic background score composed by multi-instrumentalist Ariel Marx, offers a satisfying solution at the end.

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