“Shiva Baby” is a peculiar coming-of-age drama that combines unusual filmmaking to tell an equally unusual story. It is set in one location for the most part, in a Jewish household where a lot of people have gathered after the burial of a relative. The name of the film comes from a Jewish ritual called “Shiva,” which is a seven-day mourning period that starts after the burial. All the family members gather together and observe a period of sorrow for the departed. Now, whenever there is even a mention of death, a tense feeling automatically consumes the air. And more so when we know that the family will be gathering together to mourn the death of their relative. But in “Shiva Baby,” the entire background of the Shiva becomes a setup, a stage of sorts, where we plunge deeper into all the characters and, through their widely unrelated conversations and gossip, the insecurities of Danielle come alive.
The Curious Case Of Danielle
We meet Danielle in the first scene itself, while she is engaged in an intimate encounter with a seemingly older man. She gets a call from her mother asking her to be at a burial service for their relative. We get to know here that the man is, in fact, her sugar daddy. And we follow Danielle there. Danielle is a teenager who has not figured out what to do with her life. She has to pretend that she is well settled and sorted when, in fact, she still lives off her parents’ money. Throughout “Shiva Baby,” her anxiety is brought about as we practically see her in almost every frame. She has a hideously awkward self, which is brought about through her reactions to whatever is happening around her.
At Shiva, everyone is delighted to see her and surprised as well, for Danielle doesn’t attend much of the family gatherings. Her aunts make fun of her; her mother doesn’t want her to embarrass them in front of everyone and is constantly asking people to set her up on a job. To raise the tensions further, her ex-girlfriend Maya has come for the gathering as well. And it turns out, as we move further, Max, her sugar daddy, makes an appearance as well, followed later by his wife, and that too, with their 18-month-old baby! All of these appearances make things uncomfortable for Danielle, and she starts building lie after lie to answer everyone, while being ridiculed by almost everyone. Her father knows Max, and when her mother learns that there could be an opportunity for Danielle to work with him, she takes her to him. They come face to face for the first time in the gathering. Max is shocked to know the reality of all the lies that Danielle has told him. All of their interactions give rise to further awkwardness.
Danielle is the embodiment of teenage life where everything seems uncertain, where one doesn’t know what to make of life, and where one makes haphazard decisions in desperation to make sense of it all. She is bisexual and has recently broken up with Maya, who is comparably clear about what she wishes to do next. The two talk like enemies at first and then slowly begin to soften up. When Maya finds out about Danielle and how she indulges in sex with older men for money, she is grossed out. But towards the end, they have a conversation about it, and Danielle reflects on how it made her feel powerful and also that she needed the money. With each interaction, Danielle comes alive. And with all the ridiculing and sarcastic gestures by her relatives, she never has a complete breakdown. That would be another film with different strings and playing on a different rhythm. It somehow reminds one of “Fleabag” and her troublesome jest, but only that Danielle is not as shady and traumatized as Fleabag.
The Filmmaking style of Emma Selligman
Filmmaker Emma Selligman, who is making her debut with this film, creates a world that is familiar to her and her traditions. “Shiva Baby” is inspired by her own experiences of going to Shivas while growing up. She saw her aunts and uncles engaged in discussion about all sorts of things while they were in the mourning period of the family. She imprints all of that on the film and brings humor to its otherwise bleak themes. All the while, we see everything from the eyes of Danielle and follow her everywhere in the house as she interacts with people. There are a lot of dialogues in the film, which help in creating the layers that the characters wear. The filmmaking is built in a way that underlines the tension in Danielle’s head, highlights the troubled state that her life is in, and at times makes us struggle for breath with such a razing use of music and camera. There is a dangling sense of terror that looms in the background, with tense music playing along as if in a thriller. The music becomes a part of the film, almost a character, floating distinctly over the heads in a ghost-like way. In one scene, while Danielle is speaking to her aunt, the music starts building up, becoming louder with each passing second, as the camera zeroes in on her, frustration clearly visible on her face. The music becomes so loud that we barely hear what is being said, and suddenly it breaks off as Danielle walks away or some other action happens. We are literally or rather audio-visually in the atmosphere, in that hall, in that dining room, along with Danielle, listening to all the chit-chats and taunts, feeling what she feels, empathizing a little but not overtly. There are some unhealthy interactions that take place between Kim and Danielle. Especially towards the end, when Danielle acts weird, and this is supported by the changed aesthetic sense. While the story is just trying to be coming of age, the filmmaking evokes varied emotions about the psychological mindset of Danielle. Emma uses the entire space brilliantly by limiting the entire journey to just one house. It feels blocked. There is a sense of claustrophobia in some scenes, but all of that is purposefully designed for us to feel that way. And Emma knows just when to pull the strings, when to cut, and how to show an emotionally charged scene so that it doesn’t become too heavy. Filmmaking is, in the end, about balancing and picking up on rhythms. Emma does both quite effortlessly.
‘Shiva Baby’ Ending Explained – Does Danielle Accept Who She Is? What Happens To Maya?
Right from the start, we see that Danielle doesn’t open herself up completely, but there are these parts where we peek inside her and get to know the complexities that exist within. At some points in “Shiva Baby,” she unmasks herself and becomes vulnerable in front of her mother, who fails to console her. All of this pays off at the end, when she breaks down in front of everyone after a flower pot that she was holding falls down and shreds into pieces. The flower pot, as if to symbolize her own agonies, her many parts that were boiling from the start and finally broke apart. She sits down to clear the pieces of the pot, agitated and horrified at the face of life, collecting her own pieces. She breaks down, saying she doesn’t know what to do. Her mother spreads out an embrace in consolation.
At the end of “Shiva Baby,” with all the embarrassment that the gathering was, Danielle gets in her father’s van along with six other people. She sits behind with Maya, and the two reconcile. The ending doesn’t leave a hint as to what will happen next. What will Danielle do now? She neither finds her “calling,” nor is there much amount of closure to her journey. And as opposed to a lot of coming-of-age films where we have the lead character finally making it, for good, here we don’t know what Danielle will do now. It’s all still uncertain. But it’s still hopeful. It’s as if all of them are going on a journey. A new journey. And that too, a seemingly happy one.
“Shiva Baby” is a 2020 Drama Comedy film written and directed by Emma Seligman.