Shiva Baby: why do we instantly identify with chaos?

Isabela Bernardino
Cine Suffragette
Published in
4 min readAug 30, 2021

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Rachel Sennott and director Emma Seligman.

Shiva Baby is Seligman’s baby. The twenty-six-year-old Jewish, queer, female filmmaker shaped Shiva Baby throughout the years 2018, 2019, and 2020, making it a pre-pandemic gem — and we should celebrate the mastery of Emma’s debut feature. Although it was initially a short film made for her thesis project at NYU, she saw its potential to evolve and gave birth to one of the most relatable movies to ever exist.

The 1h28 anxiety-inducing film is tightly organized to make every second count. The story revolves around Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a queer, Jewish woman — and sugar baby — who’s about to graduate from college. She (not so) peacefully leads her life away from her parents, whose thoughts on their daughter’s financial life are solely based on the belief that she is a standard babysitter. On the other hands, to pay her bills while living on her own, Danielle lead a double life. She is a tough liar, a natural; no one has ever even considered such a thing, but everything falls apart when a shiva is set to happen back in her community. She, nor the public, truly cares about the deceased. Why would we? Sennott steals the show from the very first moment she steps into the shiva, late, but her awkward figure still manages to cause an earthquake.

The sequence given to us is an endless interrogatory about Danielle’s life, starting from her parents wanting to know the reason why she got there so late, and then all those semi-known faces curious about how and why she is living her life the way she is. While Danielle can’t even explain her major, things get worse when Max (Danny Deferrari) brings excruciating horror to the scene as soon as he steps into the shiva. The very first moment Danielle lays her eyes on him, she recognizes the same guy she has been hooking up with in exchange for money. That’s where the tension starts changing for the worse — if possible. A series of unraveling moments is set to happen; it goes from Danielle finding out Max is married, has a child, and happens to be married to this prototype of a perfect female entrepreneur named Kim Beckett (Dianna Agron). To fuel, even more, the allegations, she also re-encounters Maya (Molly Gordon), an ex-lover who has her life way more figured out than Danielle. The comparison lies between them all the time when sharing the room, but so does the tension of being exes with not fully healed feelings.

We spend an embarrassing amount of time listening to a baby cry during a scene, to be more specific: Max’s baby cries loudly during a long scene, and although it feels like the world is ending with that incessant sound accompanied by infinite chats, you just can’t stop watching. And that made me wonder, why are we so comfortably uncomfortable with chaos?

Observing a large network of young women, who at some point have watched Shiva Baby, I was able to write a mental note about how we are conditioned to dwell into more comfortable storylines, instead of this bizarre category.

What truly brought me to write this article was the fact that most people were able to see themselves in Danielle, including myself. Not because we are trading fluids for money, but because it solidly portrays that sort of post-college myth where everyone is interested in the most minimalist details of your life, although they don’t even know you that well to be asking such personal questions. The film portrays the growing pains in a different light; it is the other side of growing. It’s the side where you are forced to go back to a life you no longer lead or need, but you still owe them explanations somehow. “Why are you so skinny?” or “What’s your major? What are you going to do with that?” are questions that we often see ourselves tangled to, forced to answer so quickly that we might even forget how to talk about our own lives. Shiva Baby shows the weight we bear while being in between teenage years and adulthood. The so called scary and inconsistent gap of taking a leap and becoming an adult, a true coming of age.

Truth be told, we are used to look for easier movies to watch, but those aren’t made for self-identification. The reason why most perfect slice of life movies make us question our entire existence is that they don’t contain an ounce of the daily chaos and struggles experienced by us, normal people. Yes, I do love a good fairy tale, but I am so much more invested in stories where I can see my alternative reality self as if I was looking at myself from the outside.

Danielle walks, talks, and cringes like me and so many of my friends; that’s why it became more than a favorite. It is a perfect portrayal of the anxieties and disasters of being a Gen Z woman, and that’s exactly what we needed to see… calamity.

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