In Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, a sugar baby bumps into her sugar daddy and ex-girlfriend while sitting shiva — a Jewish wake — with her parents. Based on writer-director Seligman's 2018 short of the same name, the film is graced with a towering lead performance from Rachel Sennott as Danielle, the early twenty-something, almost-graduated college student on the precipice of adulthood. The result, Monica Castillo writes at RogerEbert.com, “is a painfully funny comedy that feels both universally relatable in its depiction of awkward family dynamics and very specific to Danielle’s experience of watching her sex life collide with her religious community.” Which begs a two-part question: what is it that Shiva Baby captures so well about Jewishness? And what about that cultural specificity makes the film so universally relatable?
Raised in a Reform Ashkenazi Jewish community in Toronto, Seligman draws from her own milieu. Over at Vogue, Jocelyn Silver praises her observational skills, and her ability to capture that world’s nuances down to the jargon: “there’s one stretch where you hear the words schmutz, putz, schlong, and schtup in the span of about 35 seconds.” But for all its Yiddish wit, gossiping, and kvetching, what makes Shiva Baby “extremely Jewish,” to quote Silver again, is its protagonist’s inner turmoil. As Sam Rosenberg astutely remarks over at Jewish Journal,
…the true Jewishness of “Shiva Baby” lies within Danielle’s emotionally turbulent trajectory. A classic example of a schlimazel (a chronically unlucky person), Danielle ping-pongs around the house of mourning and builds a series of psychological mousetraps of her own doing.
Which is not to suggest that Danielle is reduced to a cartoon character. Over at The L.A. Times, Gary Goldstein takes issue with the way “Seligman leans too heavily on the Jewish tropes… only partly mitigating what some may find offensive via her characters’ well-meaning, if suffocating, concern and the film’s amusing dollops of nervous energy.” But all the uncomfortable jokes only help to articulate the protagonist’s fragile standing in a space where her aspirations and sexuality are questioned ad nauseam. Sure, Shiva Baby does occasionally reach for certain stereotypical clichés, but even then, Tomris Laffly suggests at Variety, Seligman’s sense of humor “maintains its unapologetic, insider-y confidence.” After all, as Mira Fox reminds us at Forward, “the caricatured nature of the film is part of what makes its absurdism work.”
Still, what is it that makes it so relatable? Over at Paste, in one of the most thorough takes on the film, Isaac Feldberg raises an illuminating point when he claims that the answer may lie in the nexus between Jewish humor and millennial angst:
Underneath all the best Jewish punchlines lies a weary acknowledgement of inevitable suffering; the Coen Brothers knew this in crafting A Serious Man, their riotous retelling of the Book of Job, and Seligman knows it in Shiva Baby. Laughing through the pain, employing humor as a self-defense mechanism, has long been the prerogative of Jewish comedians forced to contemplate the absurd horrors of anti-Semitism, that oldest hatred. In Shiva Baby, Seligman identifies a rather fascinating overlap between Jewish comedic tendencies and the mockery of existential suffering from which millennials draw so much of their own dark humor.
That the film feels universal doesn’t just owe to its “pitch-perfect humiliation humor,” as Kristy Puchko suggests at The Playlist, but to the cross-cultural dread of not having everything figured out when you’re supposed to—a feeling that, to borrow again from Sam Rosenberg at Jewish Journal, “is as indicative of millennial malaise as it is of Jewish guilt.”
Shiva Baby is one of several projects to tackle Jewishness in recent years—among them, popular TV shows like Transparent, Broad City and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The latter, Whitney Friedlander explains at The L.A. Times, “had a polarising effect on the Jewish community.” For some, like The L.A. Times’s Paul Brownfield, the show was “an endurance test of ethnic self-parody” out of synch with the resurgent wave of anti-Semitism, while the presence of non-Jewish actors (most notably Rachel Brosnahan in the lead role) rehashed old debates around the need for more authentic casting choices. But other critics—including Deborah Krieger at the Los Angeles Review of Books—praised Mrs. Maisel for depicting Jewish culture “as the norm,” and for expecting gentile viewers to either know its nuances “or do their level best to keep up.”
Like Mrs. Maisel’s, Shiva Baby’s cast is not a Jewish-only ensemble (Rachel Sennott and Polly Draper, her onscreen mother, hail from different backgrounds). But this hardly compromises the film’s authenticity and sharpness. In fact, as Jude Dry remarks at IndieWire,
Draper’s Debbie is a particular breath of fresh air from the typical Jewish mother trope. In contrast to the maternal narcissism of “Transparent” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Debbie seems to actually put her daughter’s well-being ahead of her own self-interest, and it doesn’t make her any less funny.
As for Sennott, “her commanding and layered mental breakdown is at the center of it all,” Cody Corrall writes at the Chicago Reader. With her “exquisitely exasperated performance,” Monica Castillo echoes at RogerEbert.com, “She strikes the perfect tone of feeling annoyed by her parents and mortified by the situation of getting stuck with her ex and sugar daddy.”
More importantly still, Shiva Baby behaves in the same way Deborah Krieger sees Mrs. Maisel as doing: it takes Jewishness for granted as opposed to advancing a pedagogical approach to its rituals and codes. This is the film’s greatest merit, and it extends from its depiction of Jewishness to the handling of Danielle’s sexual work and queerness. Sennott’s sugar baby is not a damsel in distress who longs to be rescued, but a fully autonomous character for whom sex work is a form of empowerment—though Seligman, as per The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife, aptly questions that “girls can do anything” rhetoric. And in making room for a bisexual lead, Shiva Baby also marks a step forward for bi representation on screen—challenging, as Seligman herself notes in an interview with Slate’s Madeline Ducharme, the idea that being bi is just a transitional stage in one’s growing up, and crafting a character who can be both unsure of her future, and unapologetically proud and certain of her own sexuality. That defiant, chaotic energy is the source of Shiva Baby’s charm, and what makes it stand out as a memorable dissertation of Jewish and millennial neurosis.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.