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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'Shiva Baby' Review: Messy, Uneasy Relationship Chaos At A Gathering

Rachel Sennott holding food

Let's just get it over with and spin the wheel of ''Yearly This And That'' type of movie, oh, would you look at that? We landed on the card that says ''Jewish-anxiety-rush'' for a runtime of a feature-length film, this one happens to be Emma Seligman's directorial and writing feature debut Shiva Baby, based on her previous short of the same name.

Attending the shiva in question is Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a bisexual college student who hasn't quite figured out her future yet which draws a lot of overwhelming questions from relatives also in attendance, including her mom Debbie (Polly Draper) and dad Joel (Fred Melamed). If that's not enough, Danielle also unexpectedly runs into her prospering ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and current ''sugar daddy'' Max (Danny Deferrari) who hasn't told everything about himself yet. Mostly taking place at one location for fast-moving 78 minutes, the film flourishes because of Seligman's writing that is richer than the small budget, which in turn affects some technical aspects.

The delicate balance of Danielle's uneasy day and pretty obvious budget restraints is shown through the staging but what's worth writing about it is how a confident filmmaker will always lean on their strengths. In this particular case it is the script and carefully thought-out, specific enough dialogue. After all it's a microscopic character study, mostly in real time even, so it's notable how natural Danielle's relationships with everyone feel when introduced to those other characters, and that's before assuming that this wasn't even three weeks of shooting. Sennott's leading performance is also mostly enjoyable, sometimes a bit too-stage-actor-y, as is the above-named supporting cast's too. Good thing is that you forgive some of the theatrics because the specificity of Jewish culture and Danielle's aimlessness colliding sucks you into the awkwardness of it all.

Even when it's important to highlight those strengths exceeding the money behind everything, Shiva Baby still has some less exceptional cogs in the wheel. When your film is only 78 minutes, it should be more immersive than what this ends up being and a lot of it has to do with the camera work. Wide aspect ratio seems like an odd decision in hindsight because the framing isn't often giving you the necessary information. Especially when characters are holding props, the camera seems to lose sight on faces in the middle of dialogue which creates disconnection for the audience.

It's notably a bummer when Sennott is giving her all but we lose her forehead, eyebrows or people in the background. Maybe some of it was shot with just Sennott in the room but the cuts and frames don't tell you where you are in the house or anything about the setting so you just end up feeling confused instead of feeling her confusion. Luckily the horror-esque score by Ariel Marx with short string hits and perfectly suffocating and interestingly blocked ending serve the story so you're left with enough distress of your own.

Smileys: Screenplay, dialogue

Frowneys: Cinematography

The real question about the movie is that were the catering and prop budgets combined?


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