‘Shiva Baby’: A College Student Deals With Her Sexual Past and Present in Tension-Fueled Cringe Comedy

A Jewish mourning ritual provides the setting for one of the most awkward afternoon’s of a young New York woman’s life in the indie feature “Shiva Baby.” Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a college student on the verge of graduating who finds herself on the receiving end of a barrage of questions in a crowded home outside of the city in this chamber comedy, the feature directorial debut from filmmaker Emma Seligman. Along with dealing with the usual nosy relatives and family friends, the presence of two of her past sex partners, one from as recently as that morning, adds to Danielle’s stress.

When we first meet Danielle, she is just wrapping up a sexual encounter with her “sugar daddy,” Max (Danny Deferrari), complete with vocalizations inspired by porn on her end. Relatively young and handsome, Max is not what most people imagine when they think of the type of men who pay college girls for sex, and the despite the transactional nature of their relationship, there appears to be some real affection between him and Danielle. Just as she’s getting dressed, she gets a voicemail from her mother, Debbie (Polly Draper), reminding her of that afternoon’s shiva. In that first scene, she’s cool and confident, and Sennott bears a resemblance to Natalie Portman. However, when we see her walk up to the shiva, it’s almost like she’s regressed to whoever she was in her adolescence, an awkward girl with frizzy hair and ill-fitting dress-up clothes.

The person who the shiva is for was a family friend, some older woman who used to play cards with Danielle’s grandmother, but that doesn’t really matter, because the story isn’t really about her at all. Instead, the focus is all on Danielle, a single woman in her senior year of college with one of those multidisciplinary majors that a lot of people don’t understand. According to her father, Joel (Fred Melamed), she’s studying gender studies and business, or “gender business.” Anyone with a degree inliberal arts will certainly relate to Danielle as she politely listens to the adults rattle off career ideas. She also has to deal with numerous comments about her body, which is rather slender, although she is hardly the anorexic waif they make her out to be.

But the real struggle comes when Danielle is faced with her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), a family friend and current law student who was her first love. Sennott and Gordon have a great chemistry as the young women antagonize each other and deal with their unresolved feelings. Further complicating things is the arrival of Max, who also turns out to be a family friend, and his glamorous “girlboss” wife, Kim (Dianna Agron, showing a mature side of herself), with whom he has a baby, all news to Danielle.

Seligman does an excellent job of creating tension that steadily rises as the afternoon progresses. She is also successful in making Danielle’s surroundings increasingly claustrophobic, culminating in a final scene that sees all the major characters crammed together in Joel’s van. Sennott gives a great performance as Danielle struggles to conceal her feelings until her disgust with Max reaches a boiling point. Agron, meanwhile, gives an equally impressive performance as Kim, who is better at hiding her emotions, although it becomes increasingly evident that there is a lot bubbling behind her cool exterior, as she can no longer lie to herself about her husband’s secret life. Her situation is made even more uncomfortable by the fact that she is an outsider at the shiva, being the only person who isn’t Jewish by birth, something that is commented upon behind her back.

Danielle is an interesting and relatable character, as she, like so many people her age, faces so much uncertainty. We also see here how even someone who grew up in a liberal environment has to deal with ignorance when it comes to their sexuality, as her parents view her being bisexual as just a phase. 

“Shiva Baby” is a tight 77 minutes, but one thing that is missing is more exploration about what led Danielle, a young woman from a privileged background whose parents still pay for her apartment and most of everything, to become a “sugar baby.” The simple explanation she gives to Maya is that she likes the money, although she only has one client who pays her so little that she’s able to explain the cash away to her parents as a baby-sitting job (they still monitor her banking). Thankfully, “Shiva Baby” goes out on a high. Although things are far from perfect, there’s still plenty of hope in Danielle’s world.

Shiva Baby” releases April 2 on VOD and in select theaters.