August 2021

Arts & Letters

Forebodings and a funeral: ‘Shiva Baby’

By Shane Danielsen
Emma Seligman’s funny but tense film is a triumph of writing and performance over spectacle

People who don’t work within the film industry or keep abreast of its dealings, people who just go to the movies, are shocked when I tell them that drama, these days, is something of a dirty word during pitch meetings. (And “original drama” – a story not adapted from a novel or a play, or based on real-life people or events – is the most unwelcome proposition of all.) There’s a feeling among studios and producers that “that kind” of storytelling – about, you know, human beings – has migrated to television, where it properly belongs; movies, a high-risk, high-stakes business, are now about branding, promotion and spectacle.

Consequently, we’re left with a cinema ecosystem of giants and midgets, and not much in between. Of T-rexes – loud, massive, devouring everything in sight – and microraptors, inhabiting the fringes of the landscape and hoping to scavenge just enough to survive. That Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s excellent first feature, should open hot on the heels of F9, the latest Fast and the Furious entry, offers about as concise an encapsulation of the state of the US film industry in 2021 as one can imagine.

If you were the kind of kid whose idea of playing involved endlessly smashing your toys against one another, long past the point of reason or sense, then F9 is probably the movie for you and you should stop reading now. But if, like me, you crave a little more from your entertainment – one memorable character, say, or a single unexpected line – then Seligman’s debut delivers in abundance. Made for a tiny fraction of that blockbuster’s budget (a ludicrous fraction, in fact: just over 0.001 per cent), it punches well above its weight, both dramatically and emotionally. Far from the meathead bromides of the Dieselverse, it offers humour, suspense, a generous helping of cultural anthropology and a surprisingly tender romance… all in just 77 hectic minutes.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a student at NYU who, despite having parents who pay most of her bills, earns some extra cash by “sugaring” – that is, conducting assignations, sexual and otherwise, with older, wealthier men. We find her thus engaged as the film opens, bouncing away on top of thirty-something Max (Danny Deferrari) in his spacious downtown apartment, before pausing, mid-fuck, to check a new voicemail message. “Are you coming to the funeral today, or what?” her mother asks. “Because we gotta leave soon.”

Sugaring is of course an outgrowth of the gig economy – sex work dressed up in the language of empowerment, yet also tempered by careful circumspection, enabling neither party to feel too sullied by the transaction. (“I think it’s really great to support females,” declares Max. “Particularly female entrepreneurs.”) Danielle, clear-eyed about what she’s doing, is all too aware of the reputational cost: so far as her family and friends are concerned, she makes her money babysitting.

Too late for the funeral, she joins her parents at the wake. Once there, however, her calm is quickly unsettled, first by the presence of her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and then by the unexpected arrival of her sugar daddy Max, who turns out to be someone’s nephew. Worse still, he’s soon joined by his wife, and the newborn baby Danielle had no idea they had. And even as she’s trying to process all this, she’s being barraged with questions from a seemingly endless succession of sharp-eyed, prune-faced busybodies. Is she still in law school? When will she be graduating? Has she got a job lined up? Is she seeing anybody?

Though billed as a comedy, Shiva Baby is actually as tense and unsettling as a thriller, a feeling heightened by Ariel Marx’s dissonant, percussion-heavy score and the twitchy, handheld cinematography of Maria Rusche. Increasingly claustrophobic, its tone recalls another housebound purgatorio: Luis Buñuel’s 1962 masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, in which a group of dinner guests find themselves inexplicably unable to leave the table around which they’re seated.

There, as here, social order breaks down. But where Buñuel, a surrealist to his core, refused to explain or interpret, Seligman takes care to ground the action in exacting particulars of culture and class. As its title suggests, this is an ethnological study of a particular milieu, and every element feels finely judged and thoroughly lived-in. The clothes, the food, the decor. The constant, weary bickering between Danielle’s parents. The passive-aggressive subtext underlining every exchange. The film’s one unresolved ambiguity is perhaps its best joke: neither Danielle nor the viewer ever quite manage to work out exactly who it is that’s died. (“She was… so full of life,” Danielle mumbles unconvincingly to a fellow-mourner. “Just, so… Yeah.”)

It’s also heir to a small but significant strand of US filmmaking: onscreen representations of contemporary American Jewish life, from Joan Micklin Silver’s Crossing Delancey (1988) to the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009). (And Fred Melamed, who played that film’s villain, the ghastly Sy Ableman, excels here as Danielle’s blustering, clueless dad.) Not one of the Chosen People myself, I’m assured by friends who are that it is all absolutely, even excruciatingly, accurate. “Watching it,” a friend in New York told me, “I actually started to schvitz.” (Now there’s a pull quote for the poster!) 

From a directorial point of view, the film represents a remarkable achievement. Just 26, Seligman has a rangy, capacious shooting style, reminiscent of Cassavetes, and an innate talent for blocking and framing. A few scenes play out in long, meticulously choreographed takes, and Rusche’s camera, positioned at eye-level throughout, sticks close to Danielle – darting with her through clusters of people, trailing her doggedly through the rooms and hallways of a house that soon comes to resemble nothing so much as a Rube Goldberg contraption, designed for the sole purpose of exposing and humiliating her.

This is, of course, the structure of farce: the romantic and/or sexual complications, the hectic entrances and exits. But it’s also an ingenious solution to the dilemma of the single-location drama – increasingly, the default mode for many first-time directors. The two best American films I’ve seen recently, this one and Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers, are both micro-budget features confined to more or less a single location – in the case of the latter, a handful of blocks in a small town in rural Utah. That film, shot for just US$30,000, mostly takes place outdoors – in parks and streets and front yards; this one showcases one apartment, one street and a suburban home. In each case, the narrative was shaped by the limitations of its financing. Yet both films are gripping, well-crafted and vividly cinematic. In the absence of big set-pieces or special effects, attention is focused instead on more traditional virtues: the strength of the performances and the quality of the writing undergirding them.

A stand-up comedian, Sennott is also a gifted and intuitive actor, never so breezily naturalistic as to forget to give a performance. The character, admittedly, allows her to demonstrate considerable range: over the course of the day, Danielle is alternately moody, flirtatious, panicky and distraught. Sennott does a lot with her shoulders, which become increasingly clenched as the film proceeds, and also with her eyes – darting sideways to clock the approach of a potential threat, and glazing over with boredom even as she mouths the expected platitudes. 

Her mounting fury (at Max, at her parents, at Maya) is the engine of the movie, but it’s an anger born of the terror of discovery, and something else: her suspicion that, somewhere amid the many deceptions she’s been juggling, she’s failed her own best idea of herself. Key to this is her relationship with Maya, which ended for no reason that either of them, months later, can quite seem to pinpoint. And it’s here that Seligman’s writing really excels. Skilled at sketching characters and relationships with a few deft strokes, she’s also expert at parcelling out information. This is a talky film, a wordy script, yet you never feel like a line is there simply to drop some exposition or advance the plot: every conversation feels organic, and every discovery incremental. The scene when the two women first confront each other, away from the prying eyes of other guests, is superbly acted, utterly convincing; in its recriminations and evasions, its unacknowledged yearning, it has the ring of bitter truth.

While driving this morning I heard a report on NPR celebrating the box-office triumph of F9, whose global take, as I write this, is edging northward of US$420 million. The journalist’s tone was upbeat, almost jubilant. Cinema’s back!

Shiva Baby, meanwhile, despite glowing reviews, a smattering of awards and strong word-of-mouth, has grossed just US$143,336, and is soon to debut globally on MUBI, the niche home-streaming service for “arthouse” fare, which, more and more, seems like the ultimate destination for this kind of small-scale, humanist storytelling. 

For filmmakers such as Seligman, this outcome is rather a mixed blessing. Either ignored in or excluded from commercial theatres, it feels kind of like working in television – except that real TV fare, breakout hits such as Emily in Paris or Mare of Easttown, receive far more attention. Those shows are cultural touchstones (albeit momentarily, until the next thing comes along) in a way that most indie films will never be. And their creators are paid accordingly.

Acutely aware of this fact, indie actors and film-makers console themselves with the knowledge that their work is at least out there. Waiting patiently to be discovered by someone, somewhere, sometime.

This is what 2021 looks like: a handful of massive super-predators dominating a mostly empty landscape. But as we eventually emerge from the pandemic – slowly, hesitantly – and give thanks that our cinemas are (mostly) still open, we might pause a moment to give some thought to what we fill them with and what kind of experience we expect and deserve from them – and why those two questions might matter.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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