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Shiva Baby: A Comedy or a Nightmare?

Image courtesy of The New York Times

By Noelia Veras

Emma Seligman’s feature directorial debut, Shiva Baby, is an uneasy look into an awkward afternoon with a college-aged, directionless woman. The film, which was originally a short film, follows Danielle, played by Rachel Senott, as she attends a shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual after a funeral. 

The film starts in-medias-res, giving the audience little direction and few details about the main character. Save for the first and last scenes, the entire film takes place in one setting, but manages to build a complicated, three-dimensional world that does not require movement beyond itself. 

Danielle’s mother immediately tells her to behave herself, a line which catapults the narrative forward. In just 78 minutes, this film captures both the existentialism of graduating college and the pressure of keeping up appearances in a religious environment.

Before the film gets too tense, it becomes clear that Danielle is heading into a treacherous scenario. The cinematography and mise-en-scene guide the audience to understand that this film will not be an easy ride. The colors are muted throughout the film, except for one scene in the middle that is tinted red and reflects the hazy, fever-like reaction Danielle has to an unprecedented situation. The costuming is not distracting and dulls some of the superficial charm of the characters, especially Danielle and Maya. The costuming also works to ground the audience in the reality that this is an event for an unidentified deceased person to whom Danielle has family ties, a fact which could easily be forgotten by all of the complications that Danielle faces.

Throughout the shiva, family members and close family friends go up to Danielle. People comment on Danielle’s weight loss and her after graduation plans, they pressure her to explain herself, even though she has no idea what to say. Danielle’s parents try to elaborate on their daughter’s post-graduate plans but it seems abundantly clear that Danielle does not have any. To make matters worse, Danielle’s counterpart Maya has clear plans to go to law school, a topic which people keep bringing up to Danielle with some guests even mistaking Danielle for Maya. Danielle is also humiliated about the fact that her parents pay all her bills and that she is effectively jobless.

The protagonist is also a sort of anti-hero, as Danielle is revealed to have lied to a lot of people in her life, creating a complicated character that, by the end of the film, is easy to root for because we feel anxiety right alongside her, due to some of Seligman’s cinematic choices. 

The first act of Shiva Baby employs some wide shots and occasional medium shots, but as the film progresses and the story intensifies, the frame gets tighter and Danielle seems unable to escape her circumstance. Awkward scenario after awkward scenario leaves the audience unable to catch their breath, making this film feel like a horrible nightmare. What’s labeled as a comedy film ultimately seems to mirror more of a thriller than a lighthearted story. 

As the shot closes in more on Danielle’s face, the focus gets narrower and blurs the background significantly. The audience is forced to focus on just Danielle and to understand the pressure she feels in a sort of visual language. Additionally, as we get closer shots of Danielle in her panic there is a slight downward angle on her, making her smaller and subconsciously causing audiences to see her as inferior, which in turn makes it easier to feel sorry for her. 

Obstacles seem to appear in every scene, and Senott’s performance becomes more resonant with every complication. The dialogue throughout the film is impressive and every word is important to the film, but what Senott does with her nonverbal acting is extraordinary. Senott captures discomfort in a palpable way; her face acting like a canvas for the art that is her facial expressions. Even her mannerisms and gesticulations capture a myriad of emotions and complex thoughts. 

Seligman’s film is a smart comedy with intense emotional impact. Shiva Baby introduces obstacles and makes the main character struggle until the very last moment when she finally has a second of relief. The film not only makes the protagonist struggle, but it makes audiences do the same. Shiva Baby gives viewers the ability to feel the rush of adrenaline that comes from the unknown while ultimately giving them that moment of release as well.

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