SHIVA is Hebrew for seven, the number of days for ritual mourning among Jews after someone’s death. In Shiva Baby (Cert. 15), the protagonist, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), turns up for the seudat havra’ah (“meal of comfort”) after the funeral. She doesn’t even know who died.
Her parents alternately scold and smother the young woman in the stereotypical manner that we’ve grown accustomed to in New York Jewish comedies. It does produce some laugh-out-loud moments. Being shown a couple’s holiday selfie Danielle says “You guys were at the Holocaust Museum? . . . You look so happy.”
Mainly, though, Shiva Baby is too uncomfortable, with its claustrophobic atmosphere of relatives and acquaintances normally avoided. Danielle is already perplexed enough a character without guests’ pigeonholing her with pre-set notions of who she should be.
This is a feminist 2020s version of The Graduate. Complicated by the presence of her erstwhile lover, Maya (Molly Bloom), and a current sugar-daddy (played by Danny Deferrari), she struggles to observe social cues. Like the over-tensioned strings of Ariel Marx’s irritatingly appropriate soundtrack, something is waiting to snap at any moment. Nobody ever talks about the deceased, as shiva guests are meant to. They do so only when the rabbi (described by a lascivious female as a cross between Robert de Niro and Gene Kelly) calls them to prayer.
Rachel Sennott and Danny Deferrari in Shiva Baby
Mourners’ self-absorbed smugness clashes with Danielle’s nervy lack of confidence about the future. Death concentrates her mind. What is life’s purpose? It’s here that we best perceive Emma Seligman, the young writer-director, juxtaposing the traditional Jewish background of Danielle’s parents’ generation with Millennials’ vastly changed moral landscape. It is a bewildering time for all.
Sennott captures this perfectly. Not Jewish herself, unlike most of the actors, she neatly demonstrates the universality of the dilemma for world religions: whether they play catch-up or stick to what they have held dear. As with this particular shiva’s stifling ambience, we just know that something’s got to give.
Shiva Baby is released on the digital platform MUBI