Biweekly Binge: Right to Remain Uncertain
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Shiva Baby – streaming on MUBI
If you are not particularly enthusiastic or enthused by the prospect of carefully wrapped bundles of lifeforms, is there anything more disconcerting than a crying baby in a public space, one where silence is recommended? In Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby – streaming on MUBI – this bundle of joy is in constant distress, showing more painful emotions than the grieving relatives and rest of the neighbourhood at the shiva (Jewish mourning ritual). The baby is more forthcoming in its outpouring of grief in a space Danielle (Rachel Sennott) – just finishing college – is least interested in, and something that transforms into her own purgatory. For her parents, it is a social activity doubling up as a networking opportunity to make sure their young daughter finds a job and gathers the pieces of her life. Danielle, who’d rather prefer solitary confinement, is boxed in with nosy relatives, an encounter with her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and the unexpected arrival of Max, with whom Danielle has an arrangement via a sugar baby app. At the shiva, she finds out that Max used to work with her father a long time ago and is married to Kim, a successful entrepreneur aka the shiksa (not stopping to explain all the Jewish references is one of Seligman’s best decisions), as referred to by the elderly Jewish congregation. The bundle of lifeform belongs to Max and Kim. The title therefore takes multiple connotations. The plain “Shiva Baby” or in the context of Max and Danielle, the lascivious “Shiva, baby!” or the anxiety ridden scream of the set up “SHIVA! BABY!”
Seligman’s formal approach is to compound all of Danielle’s troubles into a chamber drama, a panic attack bubble that expands exponentially. The magic is in how we wait for the bubble to burst but it stops short at every opportune moment. The drama and comedy tease this explosion while Danielle’s implosion is always in focus. Her eating disorder is spoken of in hushed tones, her ambition and future are questioned and her reunion with Maya takes a predictable but compelling turn. Seligman’s deconstruction of Danielle’s breakdown is a counterculture argument against the pressures of being a young adult today, expected to be naturally driven, mature and successful beyond their age. Just this past week a tweet went viral about how the best thing young people can do early in their career is to work on weekends. Shiva Baby unpacks this insensitivity and the burden of obligation dropped on the millennial populace and often, disproportionately on women. A couple of success stories and unicorns has led to the romanticization of a certain workplace culture or the workplace itself, a life defined by career and economic prosperity in the age of unprecedented economic inequality.
The theme unravels when Maya and Danielle are cleaning up vomit, Danielle volunteering for the job to get away to a quieter place and their chat inevitably turns towards Kim. Maya notices that Danielle cannot look away. Danielle’s frustration since discovering multiple facts about Max exposes itself, she thinks Kim is an old mother who is mean and doesn’t have sex. Maya, the ambitious and sorted of the two, plays by the rules of the burden – she gives straight facts. She describes Kim as someone close to her role model, whom she wants to be like fifteen years from now, a hot businesswoman, maybe a single mom who owns multiple companies and is so stressed out, but “you can’t tell because she’s so chill about it”. She cannot afford to show the stress, the anxiety needs a façade, one Danielle is unable to create for herself. While Maya romanticizes it, Danielle despises the culture to the point of despising Kim herself.
“You are projecting a lot of misogyny now”, says Maya. She is right. Also, wrong. Molly Gordon’s performance is one of the delightful, stress-free parts of Shiva Baby. She shifts between empathy for Danielle’s condition and disdain for an ex, with tremendous agility. Gordon’s performance gives a peek into the kind of bond both once shared, one where their worse qualities complement each other to make a whole that works. “You think Malibu Barbie isn’t pretty?”, she asks Danielle referring to Kim, with just the perfect dollop of sarcasm that on a different day could have elicited a laugh out of Danielle. And in that rare private space at the elaborate shiva, they find their independent calling and that of Emma Seligman’s extraordinary debut feature film. A cry for the right to remain uncertain.