No funny business.
All bets are off the moment Danielle (Rachel Sennott) whisper-shouts towards her parents to find out whose shiva they are about to walk into because not being prepared enough to know who the deceased is means there’s a good chance that she won’t be prepared for some of the guests either. And while it’s one thing to see an ex (Molly Gordon‘s Maya) walking into the house before your mother tells you to keep your hands to yourself (not because she isn’t progressive enough to accept a bisexual daughter, but because this is a solemn affair where everyone will have their eyes on the two to see what might happen), it’s another to also discover the sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari‘s Max) whose appointment made you miss the funeral.
Emma Seligman‘s hilarious Shiva Baby is thus as much a dark comedy in the vein of Death at a Funeral as a 77-minute panic attack nightmare. She knows it too as the really tense scenes ready to explode with the airing of a secret the gossiping pack of mourners eating bagels would love to sink their teeth into are accompanied by a loudly discordant score and an almost slomotion push-in to close-up where we’re as ready to scream for release as Danielle. Between Maya flirting, Max cautiously steering conversations away from his own secret (he’s married to Dianna Agron‘s Kim … with a baby), and Mom (Polly Draper‘s Debbie) and Dad (Fred Melamed‘s Joel) desperately trying to get anyone willing to listen to hire her, it’s literally Hell.
And despite some of the attendees remembering Danielle wanted to be an actor of some sort (she’s currently in a DIY major with no real career aspirations since mobile app sex work—a job her parents think is babysitting—is lucrative enough), she’s absolutely horrible at hiding obvious disdain, discomfort, and despair. So while the women grab her stomach wondering where the “baby fat” went and the men bump into her on their way to the dessert table, we’re reveling in Danielle’s looks of abject disgust as she waits for the slimmest pause to extricate herself from the room. And while everyone wants to talk to Max and soon coo at his baby once Kim arrives, we’re glued to Danielle’s face and its mix of rage and fear.
The awkwardness this situation supplies is the film’s best attribute because it’s both funny and relatable. Just as often as Danielle tries to avoid confrontation, she also seeks it out whether as a means of pushing boundaries or escaping the uncertainty of what might happen if she doesn’t. Because as she eventually explains towards the end, she’s embraced sex work in large part due to the power and control it provides—two things she doesn’t possess opposite parents that still treat her like a child and an insular community (the Jewish family and friends on-screen) who take pains to make her business their own. This secret is her freedom. It’s a place where only she resides. To have it threatened in earshot of everyone goes well beyond embarrassment.
Because what will they think? What will a mother (Draper is a scene-stealer throughout) Danielle already believes is disappointed in her say upon finding out? What will the woman she still loves (Gordon is enjoyably animated in the background thanks to being the only person who isn’t too self-absorbed to realize something weird is afoot) say? And let’s not forget that the man Danielle is sleeping with is suddenly revealed to be a husband and a father. That Kim is everything everyone tells her she should become only makes her question that path more since it’s still left this successful woman vulnerable to pain and helplessness in the face of unknown truths. Danielle’s sarcasm and isolation protect her from the vultures circling their kill. Why risk getting eaten?
Just because the answer is simple doesn’t mean following it is. How many of you rejected putting yourself out there in order to avoid rejection only to realize you were also avoiding success? The solution is therefore finding a balance between what’s expected and what makes you happy. Sex work may hold a hypocritically Puritanical stigma that demands to be dismantled, but there’s doing it for empowerment and there’s doing it upon an equally full bed of lies as the life you’re avoiding. Who is Danielle? Is she a babysitter with numerous job opportunities? Or is she a prospective law student earning money to secure a future? Reality proves neither. And the only one able to see through both façades is the person she’s been shamed into avoiding.
Shiva Baby is a whirlwind journey towards accepting that truth—one with emotional, psychological, and physical (Danielle will be covered in coffee and have an open wound by the end) duress. The power she’s accrued in her relationship with Max quickly becomes a liability while the power formed by her relationship with Maya proves its full potency. Seligman deftly crafts her script in a way that ensures we know everyone in this house is aware of these women’s “experimentation.” It’s an unspoken piece of taboo none of them can help getting excited about and loathe at the same time. That’s control. Getting your mothers to lose decorum because of what might be happening behind closed doors four years later is power. Sex with a cheat is merely commerce.
 Rachel Sennott in SHIVA BABY
 [L to R] Rachel Sennott and Danny Deferrari in SHIVA BABY
 [L to R] Fred Melamed, Rachel Sennott, Polly Draper in SHIVA BABY
courtesy of Maria Rusche, Shiva Baby