|Directed by||Emma Seligman|
|Written by||Emma Seligman|
|Music by||Ariel Marx|
|Edited by||Hanna A. Park|
Shiva Baby is a 2020 comedy film written and directed by Emma Seligman. An international co-production of the United States and Canada, the film stars Rachel Sennott as Danielle, a directionless young bisexual Jewish woman who attends a shiva with her family. Other attendees include her successful ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) with his wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their screaming baby. It also features Fred Melamed and Polly Draper as Danielle's parents Joel and Debbie, with Jackie Hoffman and Deborah Offner in supporting roles.
Adapted from Seligman's own 2018 short film of the same name, it premiered online at the 2020 South by Southwest film festival, while its first public screenings were at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was released in theaters and streaming on April 2, 2021. The events of the film take place almost entirely in real time and at one location as Danielle explores her romantic and career prospects under the intense watch of her family, friends, and judgmental neighbors.
The film received positive reviews from critics. It was praised for its representation of bisexual and Jewish people, being described as accessible for all audiences, and for effectively conveying anxiety-inducing claustrophobia. Seligman was praised for successfully drawing up tension within the film, especially considering it as her feature directorial debut, and won several awards for her screenplay. The cast and the musical score by Ariel Marx, likened to that of a horror film, were also praised.
College senior Danielle and her sugar daddy Max have sex before she hurries to a shiva with her parents, Joel and Debbie. Before the shiva, at her aunt Sheila's house, Danielle is schooled by her mother on how to respond to questions about her disorganized life. Within the house, members of the local extended Jewish community compare her to her ex-girlfriend Maya, who is adored by the neighbors and heading to law school. Max, who is a former colleague of Joel's, arrives, and Debbie insists on introducing him to Danielle in the hopes that one of Max's relatives will hire her. They have an awkward exchange and Debbie reveals to her that he is married, shocking Danielle.
Overwhelmed by prying neighbors, Danielle is further affected by the arrival of Max's seemingly perfect but non-Jewish wife, Kim, and their baby, Rose. After ripping her tights, Danielle retreats to the bathroom where she takes a topless photo and sends it to Max. She is interrupted and accidentally leaves her phone in the bathroom before leaving. Unable to look away from Max and his family, she offers to go clean vomit from an adjacent room in order to escape. Maya comes to help, catching Danielle repeatedly looking at Max. She mistakes the gaze as one directed at Kim and attempts to gauge Danielle's interest, while Danielle tries to dismiss Kim's attractiveness and success.
Danielle is reluctantly introduced to Kim, who is interested in making conversation with and hiring her, though Danielle is jealous and rebuffs her offer. It is also revealed that Kim is the breadwinner of the family and therefore unknowingly funds Max's arrangement with Danielle. Danielle insults Kim's career, and Kim grows suspicious when she notices Danielle wearing the same expensive bracelet that Max had given to her. Max spills coffee on Danielle, leading her to have a brief heart-to-heart with her mother. Maya also tries to talk to her, but Max interrupts the two; annoyed, Maya loudly reveals details of her and Danielle's past relationship, while Max tries to determine if Danielle is still romantically interested in him. She then follows him to the upstairs bathroom and tries to give him a blowjob but he leaves. Upset, Danielle goes outside, finding Maya smoking by the side of the house. The two admit that they miss each other and passionately kiss. Maya is excited, but later finds Danielle's phone in the bathroom and reads notifications from the sugar baby app; angry, she taunts Danielle about the phone without revealing where it is. Danielle's anxiety grows when she encounters Kim with her parents again, having a measured conversation where she behaves erratically and suggests that Max uses their vacant SoHo apartment as a bachelor pad. When Kim asks if Danielle has a boyfriend or girlfriend, Joel starts talking about her past failed love life and implores the nearby guests to sing a song they used to sing to her as a baby; Danielle feels infantilized and stressfully imagines Kim singing along, flaunting her relationship with Max.
The guests then gather to say prayers, with Rose screaming until Kim takes her away. Max follows Danielle into the kitchen afterwards, and they discuss ending their arrangement. Kim appears and tells Max they should go home. Moments later, she finds Danielle to return her phone, and attempts to force her to hold Rose under the guise of needing help feeding her. Danielle tries to refuse as Max arrives and argues with Kim about the baby, which pushes Danielle into accidentally knocking over a vase. Danielle attempts to clean up the mess but has a breakdown on the floor in front of the guests, and is comforted by her mother and Maya. Debbie suggests they use helping an elderly attendee to her car as an excuse to leave, and Maya and Danielle talk as they carry food outside. Everyone is persuaded to ride home in Joel's van, and the baby shrieks as Joel struggles to find the keys. Maya and Danielle affectionately hold hands.
- Rachel Sennott as Danielle
- Molly Gordon as Maya
- Danny Deferrari as Max
- Polly Draper as Debbie
- Fred Melamed as Joel
- Dianna Agron as Kim Beckett
- Jackie Hoffman as Susan
- Cilda Shaur as Sheila
- Glynis Bell as Katherine
- Sondra James as Maureen
- Deborah Offner as Ellie
- Vivien Landau as Roz
- Ariel Eliaz as Rabbi
Development and funding
Shiva Baby is an expansion of writer-director Emma Seligman's 2018 short film of the same title, which she had made as her thesis project while studying film at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. The title of the film refers both to Danielle and to the baby brought to the shiva, Rose. Seligman said that she felt there was room to expand on the short from early on, but needed motivation from lead actress Rachel Sennott to start working on a feature; the feature film entered production just before the short premiered at the 2018 South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival. While developing the feature, Seligman re-watched Gia Coppola's film Palo Alto, saying that she has "never seen a film so accurately portray the suffocating and debilitating nature of young female insecurities" like it. Other inspiration came from the Coen brothers, Joey Soloway's Transparent, John Cassavetes, and Mike Nichols. The costume design of the film was based on outfits worn at shivas Seligman's family had attended.
The producers and Seligman sought funding for the feature for a year and received some offers from organizations that requested more creative control over the film in return, which they were unwilling to give. Filmmaker Amanda Kramer, a friend of Seligman, put them in contact with Rhianon Jones of Neon Heart Productions, who became an executive producer; more investors became interested with Jones attached. Most of the financing came from outside funding and independent funding from people the production team knew. Seligman told Women and Hollywood that using primarily one location was also a financial decision. The film's budget came in under $250,000. Producer Kieran Altmann said that the competitive filmmaking market in New York helped them work with a small budget, as they could negotiate large discounts on gear rental; the crew were also friends of the producers, and most took a cut in their usual rate.
– Emma Seligman
The short film had been based on a fictional scenario combining Seligman's "uncomfortable and funny" experience of shivas and the community of women she knew who were sugar babies at NYU. When it came to expanding the story to a feature, she chose to also draw on her own bisexuality; the desire to showcase more of the character of Danielle and her sexuality is a reason Seligman chose to make the feature. She said that "if no one [watched] this movie except for some young bisexual women who feel seen, then [she would] feel like [she had] done [her] job". Seligman was also interested in exploring Max and Kim's relationship, and Debbie and Danielle's mother-daughter relationship, further, and in expanding on the central theme of Danielle finding her self-worth through sexual autonomy but "realizing that's not as powerful as she thinks it is". Variety noted that themes of empowered young women were present in several screenplays in the same season; features editor Malina Saval wrote that Shiva Baby shows through Danielle how a "pressure to be perfect manifests itself in women long before marriage and kids come into focus" and explores how the power of sex is only limited.
Karina Solórzano for the Los Cabos International Film Festival wrote that Shiva Baby has "the same elements as some of Woody Allen's most popular films – including the Jewish family and multiple lovers – but Seligman has her own vision and offers something different", and that it "follows the contrarian path promoted by [...] Disobedience, directed by Sebastián Lelio [but] this is not the central point of the plot; Seligman does not treat the [queer] protagonists as exceptional or disobedient". Solórzano also compared the themes of youth to those of Booksmart, and the tension to that of Uncut Gems, and discussed the relevance of other themes in the film, including Danielle's insecurities; the cultural and religious conflicts surrounding Danielle's sexuality; complex female relationships; and the honesty that comes with family gatherings.
Seligman said that casting posed a challenge; the film focuses on both queer and Jewish culture, so she wanted to find actors who would "feel authentic to the material" and had the creative goal "to see more queer Jews, especially queer female Jews, on screen, and [...] to see them leading genres that we don't often get to see led by women in general". She felt it was important to cast Jewish actors but was open to other people if they seemed perfect for the role. Sennott and Draper are not Jewish. Casting director Kate Geller "turned to the New York Jewish theatre community" for most of the cast. Due to the low budget, they looked to only cast actors based in New York City, with the exception of Fred Melamed, whom the production flew out from Los Angeles. Melamed had accepted the role of Joel based on reading the script alone. Without Seligman knowing, several of the cast already knew each other, such as Melamed and Polly Draper, playing his wife Debbie, being friends from Yale School of Drama; she used this as an advantage on set, though Draper had originally been intended to play a different role in the film.
The actors and Seligman collaborated to round out the characters. Draper improvised on-set for her character a lot, as well as adding a mother's perspective, though the production did not have time for full improvisation. The characters in the film are all seen through the relatable eyes of Danielle, played by Rachel Sennott, who is the movie's "way in". After she played the role in the short, Sennott was kept on as main character Danielle; Seligman formed a collaborative bond with Sennott working on the short and "never even thought about casting someone else". Some of the people looking to finance the film asked the producers to consider replacing Sennott with a bigger name star. Sennott, playing the bisexual Jewish leading role, is neither queer nor Jewish, but Seligman found she fit the part; comparatively, Dianna Agron is a Jewish actress playing Kim, the only character in the film who is not Jewish. Joshua Arispe for Loud and Clear said that Agron "finds no challenge in departing from [her] roots and culture to play the outsider". Molly Gordon was cast as Danielle's love interest, Maya, without a chemistry read with Sennott, and they only met the day before filming began; Seligman said that for Gordon's part she was looking for someone who could bounce off Sennott and work with her to portray the long and complex history their characters share, despite not knowing each other.
Shiva Baby was filmed in August 2019 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Director of photography Maria Rusche used an Arri Alexa XT camera to shoot the film in fullscreen 2K resolution and Apple ProRes 4444 format, with Kowa anamorphic lenses as well as a 10:1 Cooke Cinetal zoom lens. About half of the film was shot handheld. Seligman and Rusche initially considered shooting the film like a romantic comedy, but "the anxiety hook was what [they] found to set the tone for most of the process". To create the feeling of claustrophobia for the audience, they took inspiration from films including Krisha, Black Swan, and Opening Night. Rusche discussed her equipment choices with IndieWire's Chris O'Falt, explaining that to capture the anxiety in the film from the cast playing off each other she wanted an anamorphic lens so that multiple characters can remain in shot together, through the wider field of view, while still being distinguished from background characters thanks to the lens's depth. They also wanted to utilize natural image distortion to emphasize Danielle's anxiety; Rusche said the effect of the Kowa lenses "helped make it feel like the walls could literally cave in on her" and had "a good balance of edge distortion without falling apart or losing too much sharpness at the edges".
The film takes place in one location during one day, with limited space inside the house for filming, and Seligman said that some of the main struggles related to continuity, particularly working with many actors in a small space and over long periods of time with gaps in filming. She explained that while they were lucky to manage to get the caliber of actors the film features, working around the cast's schedules meant that actors could be performing across from crew members instead of their scene partners on shooting days; the production had sixteen days to shoot and only "two days when [they] had the entire [principal] six-person cast together at the same time". To work around this, the same background actors would be scheduled for the same scenes in each room and the cameras would be angled to avoid seeing into other spaces; Seligman described it as "like a game of Tetris". Another struggle was the baby playing Rose, who would not stop crying, making it difficult to film. Seligman said this was a "learning experience" that caused her to rework some scenes to fit in a crying baby, referring to one scene as a "Simba baby" moment that had to be rewritten as a "monster baby" moment.
In a Q&A for Frameline Film Festival, Seligman said that she was uncertain if she wanted to use a score for the film when going into production, but decided to do so because she wanted to push the limits of the comedy genre. A Frameline programmer described the score as a "repetitive stringed attack"; the style was Seligman's choice, and she wanted it to have strings to reflect Klezmer music. Ariel Marx came on as composer and took on the challenge of making a horror score for a comedy movie; Seligman said that it was difficult to make music that was Klezmer-like and not just Klezmer, and that Marx "nailed that sweet spot". Marx also suggested adding the score to some parts of the film it had not originally been intended, making it more stressful.
Music is also used in the story when some characters sing to Danielle. This was suggested by Draper, who had sung the song to her own children, and Seligman included it to break up scenes of Danielle being swarmed by the women at the shiva. Seligman shot the scene with different characters coming in and out of focus; Agron compared it to Rosemary's Baby.
The score received positive reviews. Stephen Saito for Moveable Fest described the score as Marx's version of the Jaws theme. IndieWire's Jude Dry wrote that the "tense string score ratchets up the tension, though this technique loses its bite after a few too many uses", while Katie Rife of The A.V. Club praised it, calling it "Harry Manfredini-esque". Andrew Parker for The GATE also touched on the score's horror-like qualities, saying it worked well for its contribution to the claustrophobic storytelling.
The film was slated to premiere at the 2020 SXSW; following that festival's cancellation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was instead screened digitally in April 2020. In 2019, IndieWire had included the unfinished film on its Sundance Film Festival wishlist, saying it "has Sundance breakout written all over it"; the production submitted the film to Sundance, and though they were given an extension on submission to work on post-production, it was not accepted. Altmann said that while it is disappointing to be rejected from a festival like Sundance, the team had been aiming for SXSW, as it is where the short premiered. It was also screened digitally at a variety of festivals, including the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2020, and the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. In place of live events, it received cast and director Q&A sessions via video links, and had its first physical screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
In September 2020, just before its TIFF run, Utopia acquired distribution rights to the film. In October 2020, the film sold streaming rights for several countries, not including North America, to MUBI. It was made available in Spain on streaming platform Filmin in November 2020 before being screened at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in March 2021. The film was released in limited theaters and video on demand on March 26, 2021 in Canada, by distributors Pacific Northwest Pictures, and on April 2, 2021 in the United States. The soundtrack was released on the same day. The first theatrical poster and trailer were released on February 18, 2021, exclusively to Entertainment Weekly. The poster was designed by High Council, with Nylon noting that it captures the film's style; "Sennott dressed to the nines in Jewish deli couture is nothing short of pure camp." A second, red band, trailer was released on March 29, 2021.
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 97% of 90 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "A ruefully funny calling card for debuting director Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby transcends its sitcom setup with strong performances and satisfying insights." Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 79 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Brian Bromberger of The Bay Area Reporter said it "may be one of the best bisexual films ever made", and Alex de Vore of the Santa Fe Reporter said that the ending is "one of the most meaningful moments of hope ever captured on film". Madeline Ducharme of Slate's Outward called the film and character Danielle "a step forward for bi representation on screen", and diversity-focused Incluvie's Aspen Nelson said that it "will be remembered as a crucial film of youthful Jewish representation in cinema." In the critics poll of the TIFF line-up, it placed second for Best Screenplay behind One Night in Miami. It was included in the Letterboxd editorial Best of the Fests 2020 list, and at the end of 2020 was featured on several year-end best film lists, as well as some listing the best unreleased or upcoming 2021 films. Sennott's performance was noted as one of the best breakouts of the year.
The film was praised both as and despite being a feature debut. Jon Frosch of The Hollywood Reporter says it may be a "softer" version of the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, adding that this is "not a shabby comparison for a first film to conjure", though he suggested that the film could have explored some of its themes deeper. It also received positive reviews for its handling of modern topics. Nelson wrote that it "takes a fresh perspective on the [messy millennial] trope that mirrors experience and compels emotion". Several critics were impressed that the film does not present Danielle's sex work negatively, and Allyson Johnson of The Young Folks felt that while the film is ostensibly coming-of-age, "what makes [it] so instantly transcendent of some of its contemporaries is how much it acknowledges that, despite Danielle's initial presentation, she's still just a brat sometimes". Others noted that while the film is rooted in its Jewish identity, it is relatable and its awkward comedy universal. There were different views on the film's runtime, with Kate Taylor of The Globe and Mail feeling that it gets stretched long, while Jason Gorber of /Film wrote that the "brisk 77 minute running time means the film never overstays its welcome".
Various critics praise the characters and ensemble cast at the film's center. Juan Antonio Barquin of the Miami New Times wrote that it captures anxiety through the performances, that the "ensemble embodies the exact level of passive aggression one might expect from people who are as uncomfortable around each other as they are invested in their growth". For The Film Stage, Zhuo-Ning Su compared the ensemble to that of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, calling the cast a "group of comedic genius". Frosch commented that Seligman's script may lean too much into stereotypes, but this is mitigated by the talented cast. In the lead role, Sennott was highlighted in several reviews, with Parker saying that she gave "a wonderful, star making performance". Other critics looked at the chemistry of Sennott and Gordon's characters, and highlighted other actors.
Awards and nominations
|2020||Adelaide Film Festival||Audience Award for Feature Fiction||Shiva Baby||Won|||
|Argentine Association of Directors of Photography (ADF)
Presented at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival
|Best International Cinematography||Maria Rusche||Won|||
|Calgary International Film Festival||International Narrative||Shiva Baby||Nominated|||
|Deauville American Film Festival||Grand Prize||Shiva Baby||Nominated|||
|Denver Film Festival||American Independent Award||Shiva Baby||Special mention: New Comedic Voice|||
|Image+Nation||Best Feature Film||Shiva Baby||Won|||
|Indie Memphis||Best Narrative Feature||Shiva Baby||Won|||
|Audience Award – Best Narrative Feature||Shiva Baby||Won|||
|Los Cabos International Film Festival||Competencia (Best Picture/Director)||Shiva Baby / Emma Seligman||Nominated|||
|Mar del Plata International Film Festival||International Competition||Shiva Baby||Nominated|||
|Miami International Film Festival||Jordan Ressler First Feature Award||Emma Seligman||Nominated|||
|Outfest||Best Screenwriting||Emma Seligman||Won|||
|Out on Film||Best Narrative Feature||Shiva Baby||Runner-up|||
|Best First Film||Shiva Baby||Runner-up|
|Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival||Rising Star||Rachel Sennott||Won|||
|South by Southwest||Best Narrative Feature||Shiva Baby||Nominated|||
|Toronto International Film Festival||Best Canadian Feature Film||Shiva Baby||Nominated|||
|Variety / Mill Valley Film Festival||10 Screenwriters to Watch||Emma Seligman||Won|||
|2021||Catalan Association of Film Criticism and Writing (ACCEC)
Presented at the Americana Film Festival
|Best Feature Film||Shiva Baby / Emma Seligman||Won|||
|The ReFrame Stamp||Narrative Feature||Shiva Baby||Won|||
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