Synopsis: A woman attends a shiva and runs into an ex and a current lover.
When does a social event become a social obligation? When you don’t want to go…but you have to. The small events are easy to get out of; the host won’t mind if you have something else on your calendar. (We know that the real reason is the ever popular, I don’t feel like it.) But getting out of momentous events is stickier. Nixing your cousin’s wedding invite? Sorry, you have to go, it’s a social obligation. And telling people that you won’t go to funerals because they’re depressing is no excuse. Although that’s true of course. See, your cousin’s wedding is looking a lot better isn’t it?
In Shiva Baby, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is fulfilling her social obligations. The college student is meeting her parents at the house of a family who is sitting shiva after a funeral. Maybe the decedent was ancient and unlikable because no one at the house seems aggrieved. Least of all Danielle, who, although privileged, has made sort of a mess of things.
The sitcom-y premise is that Danielle encounters both her ex, Maya (Molly Gordon) and her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari) at a post-funeral gathering, or shiva. In the Jewish faith, sitting shiva is the seven day mourning period following a burial when the bereaved receive mourners. Danielle’s stereotypical Jewish parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) are grateful that she’s shown up. The rest of the movie is rife with her mom trying to network a job for daughter whilst other female relatives grill her about post-graduation plans. If she has anorexia is played for a questionable laugh. Danielle sweats and stammers and dodges relatives. Uh oh, her ex Maya is there. They were involved in high school. Maya seems very pulled together and is all set for law school. As soon as she catches her eye, she pursues Danielle, making flirty, yet passive aggressive remarks to her.
The movie’s title Shiva Baby refers to Danielle’s set-up as a sugar baby to sugar daddy Max. The filmmaker Emma Seligman got the idea for the film in college when she became aware of women students responding to ads from older men with money to spare who were looking for sex. Danielle is involved with Max, who seems a bit young to be a sugar daddy. Are guys in their late thirties looking for “mistresses”? I don’t know why he didn’t just go on JDate. Uh oh, he is at the shiva too. She alternately avoids him and offers him blowies. He is possessive and keeps insisting she assure him that he’s her only client.
Danielle tells other guests that she babysits for extra money. Sometimes her parents corner her and embarrass her by referring to youthful events she’d rather forget. The tension and humor are all rigged to whether she’ll be outed for her sugar baby activities.
Danielle’s situation of privilege made me think of the University of Southern California admissions scandal wherein wealthy parents bought their academically unqualified kids’ acceptance into the college. The media was all over actress Lori Loughlin aka Aunt Becky (Full House and Hallmark movies) and her businessman husband Mossimo Giannulli for buying their daughters’ (Isabella Rose and Olivia Jade) way into USC on fake rowing scholarships. The tabloids maintained that Olivia Jade was angry with her parents for ruining the business she was building as a beauty influencer. After Aunt Becky and her husband were sentenced, Olivia Jade went on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk. As usual Jada’s daughter Willow and mom Adrienne were there to take part. Olivia said she was sorry and hadn’t realized how wrong it was to buy a college spot. I mean with her parents as role models, that’s believable. But anyway, Olivia Jade was working hard to rehab her image via her appearance on the talk show . And then– this is key– Gammy Adrienne said that it was difficult for her to care because : At the end of the day, you’re going to be okay.
Same with Danielle’s sugar baby situation. While others may have few options for economic survival, she could afford to float away from sex work and just fold it neatly into the category of Experiments with Sexual Empowerment.
At the end of the day, spending time with bratty Danielle at a shiva felt not unlike a social obligation– not unpleasant, but glad when it was over.
P.S. Someone needs to do something about the use of baby “actors.” The little girl who plays the daughter of one of the characters is constantly, miserably crying as she is handed off from one actor to another. The poor baby is stuck on camera until they get the scenes done. It sucks that there are parents who are okay with their child crying with fright from being handled by strangers because it means a paycheck. I mean it’s not really a baby’s job to have a job.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Mildly engaging.
Humor Highlight: Danielle trying to explain what her major is.