Shiva Baby is playing in UK cinemas for one night only on June 9th alongside a special Q&A and streaming on MUBI from June 11th.
Film is kept alive by new visions and voices. With every generation, there is a rise and explosion of talent, decorating the ancient walls of cinemas with a bold, creative flair. These visionaries can be slow burners of talent working their way to the ground-breaking piece that sets them apart. However, some explode onto the scene with a dazzling debut of white-hot magnificence; Emma Seligman is one of those explosive visionaries.
Seligman takes us through a day-in-the-life of sugar baby Danielle (Rachel Sennott), fresh from an appointment with her client to the shiva of a mother’s husband’s nephew’s friend once removed. It’s one of those family occasions when everyone gets together, but only about ten people know what’s happening. Soon after arriving, things go haywire for Danielle, as her client Max (Danny Defarrari) is also in attendance at the funeral alongside her old flame Maya (Molly Gordon).
Once Seligman picks up the pace, she does not slow down. This gigantic Shiva is Danielle’s claustrophobic cage as Seligman’s camera pushes against her, magnifying her every nervous tick and sweat bead. We’re anchored to Danielle like a cinematic weight she’s unable to detach, forced to navigate us through the familial clusterfuck of body critiques, future plan questions and boring small talk. This cinematographic interrogation is heightened by the precision of the framing and colour; orange flames trickle up the wall surrounding Danielle, her overwhelming stress slowly cooking her alive.
Mind-numbing blurs of agitation and stress-induced confusion are abound. They constantly seep into Danielle’s vision as her problems form into a monolith that leans on her, sapping her energy. With an Uncut Gems twitchiness that never stops, there’s an anxious heartbeat to Shiva Baby. One that pulsates louder and louder. With blood flowing as fast as Danielle’s wine into her cup as her situation heats up like a social pressure cooker, moments from popping its lid.
Sennott’s reactive chemistry is intoxicating, whether it be her fiercely awkward bisexual energy with Maya or her chaotic back-and-forth with Max. She is remarkably expressive, whether through a simple casting gaze or the ever-so-subtle anxious movements as her private and family life begin to merge into one, threatening the knife-edge she’s constantly balancing atop of. Pulling off such deadpan humour whilst remaining charmingly endearing is tricky, yet Sennott makes it look like second nature. She could go toe-to-toe with Aubrey Plaza any day.
Her character is a perfect marriage of skilled performance and intelligent characterisation. With Danielle, in many ways, a cypher for Seligman herself, being both Jewish and bisexual. And here, it is great to see some genuine bisexual representation. Being bisexual myself, the awkward flirty fighting that Maya and Danielle engage in is relatable; both too stubborn to admit their feelings toward one another unless absolutely compelled to. Here they are both so charming in their refusal to accept the white-hot flame is still very much burning.
Shiva Baby has such a self-confident oeuvre; it’s difficult to believe this is Seligman’s debut. The orchestral strings combined with her claustrophobic camera feeling like a creative masterstroke; her ultra-fine directing making the filmmaking process look deceptively easy. Shiva Baby is a vivid depiction of the generational tone of the current zeitgeist. A perfect mixture of self-deprecation and creeping anxiety. Here, Danielle’s attempt at premature adulthood is a comforting acknowledgement that trying to be an adult and stay on top of everything can be exhausting. Sometimes, you just need to realize what you need and who you need. And in creating such a heart-poundingly riotous, wickedly funny film. Emma Seligman has announced her arrival, and she’s not fucking around.