Shiva Baby, the assured debut feature from Canadian writer-director, Emma Seligman is not the first film set exclusively at a shiva. But, perhaps, it is the only one so excruciating and uncomfortable to watch that it is not just the young female protagonist who is reduced to picking her nails with anxiety. Yet this claustrophobic and tightly choreographed 77-minute film also happens to be a comedy. And it is funny. Very funny.
Shiva Baby follows Jewish, bisexual, college student, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) who is about to graduate and is grappling with balancing independence and post college anxiety with parental expectation. During the course of the afternoon shiva, under the gaze of her overbearing but well-meaning parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), she is faced with a series of awkward interrogations from family friends, as well as unexpected and humiliating encounters including the appearance of both her accomplished ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon) and her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), who arrives with his non-Jewish wife (Dianna Agron) and baby who Danielle knew nothing about. One stressful moment follows another, escalating the tension to unbearable levels before reaching a tender landing.
The award-winning indie film was a hit at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival with one reviewer referring to Seligman’s work as, “one of the truly great ‘Jewish movies.’” Developed from the short version that Seligman made in the final year of her film degree at New York University, in which writer/comedian Rachel Sennott also starred, Seligman, 26, says the biggest challenge she faced in making the adaptation was financial. “That kept me up at night,” she laughs, via Zoom from San Francisco. “And I think Rachel’s biggest contribution to the movie, including pushing me to adapt the short, was talking me off the ledge and calming me down every night.”
Imposter syndrome was another challenge, she admits — Seligman was just 24 during production. “Telling myself that I could do it, that I could direct these actors of experience and they would listen to me and want to know what I have to say and think.”
The decision to set the film during a shiva was not a difficult one for Seligman. “Growing up [in Toronto], in an Ashkenazi Reform community, shivas to me felt like any other family event. It always struck me as so interesting and funny, because someone has just died and yet we’re still competing over whose grandkids have achieved what, talking about our medical issues and asking questions about sex lives. I thought this context would lend itself to awkwardness and polarity.”
There is a strong sense of authenticity within the film, and the setting, family and atmosphere are all very true to the experience Seligman had as a child. “I have a huge family and grew up going multiple times a month to see them, either for a Jewish holiday, a wedding, a bris, a batmitzvah or a shiva, or anything really. So, I put in lines of dialogue I’ve heard people say, that I thought would be the most humorous and the most uncomfortable. A lot of the awkward things that have been said to me or that I’ve said or done, or feelings I’ve had from many years of experiencing these kinds of events was compressed into this day.”
Not only is Seligman’s portrayal of Jewishness grounded in what she knows, so too is the concept of ‘sugar relationships’, where older men pay young women for dates and sex, which are, Seligman thinks, more popular in the US than in the UK, and were prevalent when she was at NYU. “There are various reasons for its popularity [here], and one of them is because of college debt and how expensive education is in the US, particularly in New York, which is an incredibly expensive city to live in.” She went on one ‘sugar’ date, but that was all.
Danielle, like Seligman, does not need the money. As her mother points out, she’s “on the payroll,” and her parents are unaware of the nature of the relationship with Max, who believes he is helping her through law school. So, then, what is Danielle’s motivation? “I think when you’re a young woman, you can feel completely powerless and sexual power is sometimes the only thing you have. That’s what it gives Danielle, for sure. When you have nothing else that makes you feel in control of your own life, it can be like Ecstasy, especially when you realise how much women don’t have it and how much harder it’s going to be when you leave university and enter the real world and have to compete with men,” she says smiling. “Part of the complication … is that you have no idea what you’re doing when you’re 18 or 19. So it may seem like this powerful thing, and maybe it is a lot of the time, but often it’s not.”
Danielle is questioned, about her weight (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps”), her studies and her career prospects. As her anxiety rises, light relief is provided by Jewish rituals, gossip and conversation: the use of Yiddish; a discussion about how rugelach is pronounced with reference to Max’s wife, Kim, the “shiksa princess”; and even a joke about visiting a Holocaust museum. Was she concerned that these cultural references might not work for non-Jewish audiences?
No, she says, “I’d made the short first and got some wonderful responses. I was really surprised to hear from non-Jews: Greeks, Cubans or Indians, who related to it because of their specific family and culture, where food and big events are also a big part. In the last few years there’s been so much great content from very specific cultural perspectives that have proved to be universal. Transparent, for me, was a huge reference.”
Danielle’s parents, Debbie and Joel, are portrayed as extreme versions of the Jewish stereotype. She is bossy, and he is continually criticised by his wife.
“I definitely tend to run with the stereotypes because in a movie like this, for me at least, there’s no way to avoid them,” Seligman explains. “But I tried as much as possible to make the characters genuine and give them a little more depth, so they weren’t just these talking heads around Danielle.”
Do they bear any resemblance to Seligman’s own parents? “My dad [who starred in the short] is pretty much that 100 per cent!” she says. “He wouldn’t want me saying that, so instead I say that Joel is inspired by him. My mum isn’t as pushy but has said to me all the things that Debbie says to Danielle, although not in a public setting, not at a shiva. I made Debbie a little bit larger than life because I wanted her to get into Danielle’s way and make her more of an active protagonist and character in Danielle’s life.”
The reaction of Seligman’s family has only been one of support. “My parents love it, they’re so supportive of me,” she says. “My family are quite liberal and reformed, so sex isn’t a taboo, or sex work, or bisexuality [like Danielle, Seligman is bisexual]. I think they were initially nervous because they saw themselves in their characters — some of the scenes are pretty much word for word how fights and stuff go down in my family — but they got over it.”
Discordant strings play throughout the film, which heighten tension and give it a horror-like feel. But, originally, Seligman had not wanted any music until she realised that a score would help play into anxiety. “I had wanted it to feel naturalistic and Cassavetes-like because his films are so anxiety-inducing, thrilling, and uncomfortable. Eventually, I decided I wanted something string-based because I wanted it to feel somewhat klezmer inspired.” They approached different female string-based composers before finding “the incredible” Ariel Marx.
“I kept saying to everyone I wanted it to feel super anxious, and by the time we got to what I wanted, she told me I wanted a horror score. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I clearly haven’t seen enough horror films for that light bulb to click in my mind.”
Seligman’s interest in film began at an early age and, in her teens, she contributed film reviews for The Huffington Post. Appearing relaxed and confident, she seems to take success in her stride but, being a young filmmaker, whose first film has been widely acclaimed, she admits to feeling a lot of pressure. “Definitely. But I think that every first-time director does and wonders, what if I only ever make one good film?”
She wants to continue telling different Jewish stories, especially in genres where we don’t often see Jewish characters.
“I would love it if they felt a little more distant from my personal life, because it has taken so much out of me to tell this story,” she says. “So, I’d like to see a Jewish western or a true horror movie. Or…” she ponders, “How about Jews in space?”
Shiva Baby is available on MUBI from today.