Writer/director Emma Seligman’s stunning debut feature Shiva Baby is a gut-wrenching, surprisingly sexy 80-minute ride. Seligman effectively uses the film’s setting and musicality to atmospherically reinforce thematic meditations on power and sex, but one of its more impressive elements comes from her ability to have the audience meditate on sex without reductively making a banal spectacle out of it.
In Shiva Baby, Rachel Sennott—a talented stand-up in the New York alt-comedy scene—plays Danielle, an NYU senior. Danielle’s a sugar baby and the film opens with her having loud sex with Max (Danny Deferrari), her sugar daddy. Danielle is on top. Max thinks that the money he gives Danielle goes towards her forthcoming law school tuition and, before Danielle leaves, he paternalistically prides himself on financially supporting her legal ambitions. After an awkward hug goodbye (one that ironically and purposefully undercuts the intimacy of the sex that’s just been had), Danielle scurries to attend a shiva with her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed).
Danielle arrives late and somewhat disheveled to the shiva to find that her ex-best friend/ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is there, as is Sugar Daddy Max. The remainder of the film takes place in the home where the characters sit shiva as Danielle strives to conceal her sugar baby activities from her doting parents (who believe she’s been babysitting) and Maya (who unlike Danielle is actually going to law school). Shiva Baby also captures Danielle as she hovers around Max and the two-year-old daughter and girl boss wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), she didn’t know he had.
Throughout the film, Danielle is on an anxiety-inducing trip to perform calmness as people from opposing pockets of her life mingle with one another. If she is not ogling Max’s seemingly perfect wife, she is topping Maya in conversation, or making out with her, or deflecting comments on her thin body from spectating women. Shiva Baby’s effective use of close-ups and spitfire dialogue puts the audience in the place of one of Danielle’s voyeurs. We witness her discomfort—and we’re being pulled in close enough, stuck in the same stasis of this house full of chit-chatting grievers, to feel it too. The tight camerawork spotlights Danielle’s dissociative, delirious countenance (Sennott’s Twitter bio calls it “sexy in a weird unconventional dreary way”) and is underpinned by the din of lingering, discordant violin music.
Shiva Baby focuses heavily on bodies as conduits through which sex and social performance can be explored. There is the central dead body, which unites these grieving, gossiping community members under a single roof. There is Danielle’s body, which she shares with Max in exchange for feelings of autonomy and money. But in addition to the premise and the protagonist, Seligman uses Shiva Baby’s setting to serve as an additional living body in the film.
Shiva Baby’s stasis reinforces and reflects the anxiety and claustrophobia Danielle feels as her world and the camera lens repeatedly close in on her. When miscellaneous matriarchs ask Danielle about her romantic life, she ducks to the bathroom or the kitchen or the living room where Maya or Max are close in proximity. She is trapped, or at least stuck inside of this mourning home with her sources of anxiety—just as she is stuck inside of her own body with her mix of inextricable, contrasting feelings. Arousal, embarrassment, deceit, desire, hunger. The house itself is full of life and becomes personified as it reflects Danielle’s inner world.
The tonal blending of the macabre environment with the intimacy conjured by Danielle’s distinct familial and sexual relationships with fellow shiva attendants effectively builds into this emotional pressure that intermittently erupts throughout the film. After an intense exchange, Max accidentally spills coffee onto the floor, blemishing Danielle’s white button-up in the process. Both Danielle and the home are stained. Other times, Danielle knocks a table of Talmuds onto the ground or breaks a vase, sending a shower of glass shards onto the floor and prompting glares from her peers. Just as the glass breaks, Danielle too breaks down into a puddle of pathetic tears. Her anger-fueled outbursts result in an inner quiet and external hush that falls through the house. This link between Danielle and the shiva house elevates Shiva Baby’s meditations on the body, because it deliberately aligns non-sentient space with feminine personhood in order to ironicize the dehumanizing ways female sexual autonomy is scrutinized.
This narrative build and release, build and release that’s expressed through Danielle and the house isn’t just for comedy or anxiety, but reinforce the film’s thematic explorations of commodified and non-commodified forms of social intimacy. The pace of the film itself simulates sex, although Seligman strikes a delicate balance between finding the film’s overtly sexual moments and not drowning Shiva Baby in them. The film is less interested in the act of sex itself and more interested in the ways that sex, like other social activity, can be riddled with performativity—gestures and flourishes that would not appear were there not an audience that a person felt pressured to please.
Danielle performs sexiness for Max just as she performs togetherness for her mother’s friends and indifference towards Maya’s lingering gaze. Seligman’s preoccupation with overlapping and corresponding forms of social performance are what make Shiva Baby so distressing and entertaining: They are messy and troubling for Danielle to traverse, but they are also masterfully elevated by Seligman’s choice to not aesthecize sex or the body. Little of Sennott’s naked body is shown in the film. In the aforementioned opening scene and during other moments when Danielle takes naked selfies or offers oral sex to Max, her body is never visibly nude. Although nudity in movies can be purposeful when done with intention, Seligman’s decision reiterates that although Shiva Baby is a film about a young woman’s relationship to sexuality, access to her body is not something an audience must be granted for the heart of the story to translate. Although we are denied that visual access and the implicit consumption of Sennott’s body, Danielle’s relationship to food in the film is a superb surrogate for sexual pleasure and consumption.
In addition to asking invasive, leading questions about her job prospects and romantic life, those ever-present matriarchs hound Danielle and her mother Debbie (Polly Draper) about her weight. Although the comments on Danielle’s body are not related to her sex work (Danielle and Max are the only ones who know, of course) they carry a similarly judgmental tinge about how Danielle treats or uses her body. Sometimes Danielle piles food onto plates just to dish them back into their serving containers. Other times, she ravenously scarfs down a bagel and lox. We do not see Sennott’s naked body, but we do see how Danielle treats her body and what she allows to enter it. This choice and the recurring commentary on Danielle’s weight are not exclusive stand-ins for inquiries about her sex life, though. Her mother knows that Danielle is bisexual and tries to keep her and Maya apart. But Danielle’s eating in the film is a supplemental example of the way the bodily autonomy of women is often probed by other people—sometimes by other women—and how that too shapes a woman’s relationship to herself.
Seligman’s technical choices throughout Shiva Baby effectively reinforce the film’s tonality in order to demonstrate how disconcerting social judgement can be for young women. The film leverages tension between characters to show how intimacy of all forms can result in social performativity, but its aesthetic decisions regarding sex and consumption in particular impressively elevate the film’s larger explorations of bodies above the traditional cinematic reflex to sensationalize sensation itself.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.