Dan Jacobson reviews the creative feature Shiva Baby, exploring the dynamic between a young Jewish woman and her traditional family.
As I’ve mentioned in previous pieces, the lockdown has allowed me to make my first foray into horror film and realise how, regardless of how emotional or abstract a concept is, it can be used to provide commentary on (if not answers to) social issues. In turn, I have also been investigating how non-horror films might lean on horror tropes or techniques to amplify their messages. Debut writer/director Emma Seligman all but perfects this in Shiva Baby, which played as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival 2020 – and unfortunately won’t be widely available until later this year.
An extension of Seligman’s 2018 film-school thesis short film, Shiva Baby centres on Danielle, a young Jewish woman about to graduate from a liberal arts school, who encounters her successful ex-girlfriend, Maya, and her sugar daddy, Max, at a Jewish ritual mourning house (also known as a shiva house). This is an irresistible premise, and the film is hilarious. More importantly, though, it provides a backdrop for Danielle’s real-time descent into a nervous breakdown, as she struggles to avoid both of them whilst navigating the minefield of loaded small-talk and idle gossip swirling around her.
Some of the horror tropes are more obvious than others. Shiva Baby is an incredibly claustrophobic film, taking place in a single house chock-filled with people. Consequently, Danielle rarely has a moment of silence to gather her thoughts; even when she’s by herself, she is surrounded by the muttered conversations and pointed observations of those around her. This tense atmosphere is highlighted by an amazing score by Ariel Marx, which initially compliments Danielle’s rising anxiety before becoming overpowering as the film reaches its climax.
The main source of both horror and comedy, though, comes from the incessant intimidation and condescension imposed on Danielle. Whilst gatherings at a shiva house are part of a week of mourning following a death, they are not necessarily melancholic affairs: they often have food and plenty of socialising. Consequently, they may become a place where it is more important to ‘be seen’ rather than to pay one’s respects. For most of the short film, it is unclear who actually died; the deceased is eventually revealed to be a distant family acquaintance. Fundamentally, Danielle would likely be fending off questions like this at any communal gathering and so the site is not obviously relevant, although it exemplifies the beautiful absurdity at the centre of Shiva Baby.
Overarchingly, every acquaintance who corners Danielle asks the same three questions: what will she do after she graduates (once condensed to “law school or grad school?”); is she dating anyone; and either has she gained weight or is she anorexic (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps. And not in a good way”). These questions are triggering and terrifying not only due to their omnipresence, but also the weight attached to them. A ‘low’ post-graduate job may not only reflect badly on you, but on your parents and social circles. Not dating someone may be indicative of something ‘wrong’ with you, and dating a “goy” or a “shiksa” (derogative terms for a non-Jewish person) is even worse because it implies a betrayal of your Jewish upbringing.
I understand that both this film and my interpretation of it may feel like deliberately negative representations of the Jewish community. However, the pressure-cooker environment and obsession with representation do not arise from a bad place, but rather from an urge to see our community succeed and thrive. This is far from being an exclusively ‘Jewish’ feature. The vast majority of my friends from ethnic minorities faced the same trinity of degree choices (if you don’t know which degrees, don’t worry about this), along with the parental strictness and pushiness of which, of course, we would eventually see the benefits. Overall, it comes from a deep-rooted awareness that your words and actions do not just reflect on you, but also on your family, your community, your religion, and your race.
Regardless of her family’s potentially benevolent motivations, Shiva Baby fully acknowledges just how difficult these pressures can be. Danielle is not especially interested in being a sugar baby and, financially at least, doesn’t need to be. But it is easy and provides her with the validation which she finds so difficult to gain. She does not resent Maya for going to law school, but she resents the fact that, for everyone else, she provides an instant comparison that can only reflect negatively on her (“Maya is going to law school. Danielle is gender business”). A more personal comparison comes in the form of Max’s successful, beautiful, non-Jewish wife, whom Danielle’s parents nag for a job (“I’m just wondering how female entrepreneurs do it at all”). However, whilst it may be only hinted in the film’s smaller moments, the silver lining in Shiva Baby‘s message is that no matter how hard it might be to believe, nobody has their shit together.
For posterity’s sake, I should add that Shiva Baby is one of my favourite films of the year, and one of the most accomplished, confident, creative, entertaining debuts I have ever seen. Emma Seligman is a genius whom we all need to watch out for; the entire cast is beyond excellent; and the use of horror tropes to underscore the characters’ emotional insecurities is masterful. Whilst many of the film’s beats and themes may be plainly obvious to me on account of my Jewish upbringing, the scariest things in the world – growing up, gaining independence, taking responsibility – are universal.