Outfest 2020: Shiva Baby

front: Rachel Sennott, back L to R: Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, and Polly Draper. Credit: Maria Rusche

Writer-director Emma Seligman‘s stupendous feature debut, Shiva Baby, expands on the 2018 short film in one of the most Jewish films to grace the screen.

Shiva is a seven-day mourning period in the Jewish religion.  This period traditionally starts following the burial.  Mourners stay home during this period while family and friends come over to offer condolences.  A minyan will usually gather in the afternoon and evening in order for mourners to recite Mourner’s Kaddish during Mincha and Maariv services.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is at a crossroads as she nears the end of college.  When the film starts, Danielle is with sugar daddy Max (Danny Defarrari) before meeting her parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper) at a family shiva.  Danielle and Debbie have come up with an official soundbite to tell family and friends when it comes to post-grad life.  The fun, of course, comes in keeping it together.  Meanwhile, ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is more together with admission into law school.  Is there some jealousy here?  Maybe.  But the comedy really comes when–much to Danielle’s surprise–Max walks in the door shortly followed by his wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and their 18-month-old daughter.  Whether its Max, Maya, or family, everything comes boiling to the surface!

I’m not going to compare the feature to the short too much.  They both start out with similar scenes.  Following this, they play along to similar beats.  After this, it becomes a film where anything goes.  Obviously, the important things carry over or it would be a completely different film.  I will say that Seligman manages to introduce aspects that aren’t in the short film.  For one, Danielle’s sexuality is never mentioned in the short film.  A character we assume is straight is actually bisexual.  This comes at a time when it feels like so many characters are straight.  We don’t get enough depictions of LGBTQ Jews on the screen–especially bisexual Jews–so I’ll take what I can get!

Having already seen the short film of the same name during SXSW in 2018, the feature didn’t just meet my expectations but exceeded them.  Short films can only do so much story in so little time.  I was curious to see how the story works with a longer running time.  The end result is a film that brings so much humor to the table.  And family drama.  This film is unapologetically Jewish in all of its nuances.  Shiva Baby will certainly appeal to Jewish audiences.  Upcoming screenings also include Toronto and Deauville in September.

Casting-wise, Rachel Sennott is the only one reprising her role from the short film.  Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Defarrari, Fred Melamed, and Dianna Agron are among the new editions.  Dianna Agron’s character is frequently referred to as not being Jewish but the actress is Jewish in real life.

Shiva Baby also manages to accomplish one of the rare feats that any Jewish film can do: capturing the nausea that comes with being around family.  I mean, I’m watching via the Outfest app but the camera work made it feel like I was there!  This happens late in the film but cinematographer Maria Rusche sets it up nicely.  All around, the camerawork is top notch whether its the moments when Danielle is by herself or surrounded by family.

While the film is mostly a comedy, there are some dramatic elements.  Most of the serious moments come late in the film but they are not without any sentiment.  For all of the drama, Seligman finds a way to make us care about these characters.

Shiva Baby manages to capture the essence of attending Jewish gatherings while bringing something fresh to the screen.

CAST:  Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Defarrari, Fred Melamed, and Dianna Agron

Shiva Baby held its Southern California premiere during Outfest LA. The film will also screen during the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery and TIFF Next Wave programs. Grade: 4.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.