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October 27, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Shiva Baby

shiva baby.jpg

Emma Seligman - 2020

Shiva is the name for the period of mourning following the death a person. The traditional Jewish period is a week following the funeral. This has changed depending on which sect one belongs to as well as personal choices. Emma Seligman's film mostly takes place within one house where friends and family gather following a funeral.

The film is unapologetically about Jewish-Americans. This is significant to me as Jewish identity in French films, for example, is generally presented in a matter of fact manner, while Hollywood films usually either present someone as an exotic other or a member of the the tribe that dares not speak its name. What I liked about Shiva Baby is that the characters and the actors who play them resemble some of the people I grew up with either as relatives or during my time as a sometimes reluctant member of Reform Jewish temples in Chicago and Denver. In this regard, the film struck the same chord of familiarity as the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Both films benefit from the presence of Fred Melamed in the cast.

Danielle is a college student who is also the "sugar baby" of Max, older by fifteen years or so. She agrees to go with her parents to home of a family friend, with the informal gathering of people following a funeral. It's virtually claustrophobic with so many people in an average sized suburban house. In addition to dodging and weaving between curious friends of her parents who want to know the directionless Danielle's plans, Max shows up. Danielle has been disguising her time with Max with the euphemism of "baby sitting". Previously unknown to Danielle is that Max also has a beautiful blonde wife, the classic Jewish male's fantasy, as well as an infant daughter. Danielle also has an unexpected reunion with a former girlfriend, Maya, which brings out more tensions.

I should mention this is a comedy. Much of the humor comes from the caustic lines. One memorable barb spoken by her mother to the exceedingly slender Danielle is that she resembles "Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps". Fred Melamed plays Danielle's father, the forgetful mensch who is more than willing to go out of his way to be helpful whether that help is wanted or not. Polly Draper appears as Danielle's mother, sharp tongued but also the one who provides the greatest support. Perhaps not intentional but Draper here made me think of a more sarcastic version of Phylis Newman, a name more familiar with those of us who grew up watching network television game shows in the 1960s. And I mean this as a compliment. Rachel Sennott carries the film admirably as Danielle. Reportedly, Ms. Seligman fought to have Sennott star rather than cast a more familiar name. What also makes Sennott a more interesting choice in the lead role is that she is not the conventionally attractive actress.

Also notable is the violin based score by Ariel Marx. The discordant strings have been described by others as resembling the music for a horror movie. Certainly horror movies and comedies are similar in that both are about characters who experience extreme anxiety. Seligman also is able to find ways of making use of visualizing Danielle's impossibility of distancing herself from overbearing parents and relatives. In one shot, Danielle's mother and another woman are talking about Danielle. The two older women are seen on either side of the film frame, out of focus, while Danielle, further back, is seen in focus in the middle of the frame. While it is certainly not as nutty as the scene in A Night at the Opera with the Marx Brothers cramming everyone into the tiny cabin of an ocean liner, Seligman does something similar with Danielle's insistent father stuffing nine adults plus a baby (if I counted right) into his passenger van. How can I dislike a film that ends with a line I have not heard in over forty years, "We're off. Like a herd of turtles"?

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 27, 2020 06:34 AM