The Uncomfortable Brilliance of ‘Shiva Baby’

by Aubrey McKay
Shiva Baby

Generally, we all try and avoid uncomfortable situations. Whether it is trying to avoid someone, a confrontation, or any of the other myriad of possibilities, we don’t want any part of it. We will quickly pull out our phones and escape whichever experience we were aiming to sidestep. The reason why is quite simple, we have all had enough of these uncomfortable experiences to know better. This fact makes it more interesting when a film aims to take the very thing we try to avoid and recreates that feeling as a part of the film’s experience. This is exactly what writer and director, Emma Seligman, does with her new film, Shiva Baby.

Seligman isn’t going for the traditional cinematic discomfort by inducing squirminess in your seat with something unsettling or graphic. She is not even going for the anxiety-inducing experience of something like Uncut Gems, in which you are waiting for the inevitable terrible thing to happen. Shiva Baby is more veiled in its discomfort; measured, thoughtful, even cerebral in its execution. Seligman creates an experience for her main character that induces a very familiar discomfort, then forces us to live in it for the length of the film (which is thankfully quite short). While this sounds miserable, it is quite brilliant! So brilliant that the film lives in your mind for long after its ending and feels unlike anything else you’ll see. Shiva Baby may be tough to watch, but it is that discomfort that makes it great and ultimately enjoyable.

A Unique Tone

In the modern movie landscape where there are seemingly more movies than ever, it is difficult for a film to break through and resonate. There is an increased focus on familiar IP and the lines are blurred lines between what is a movie and what isn’t. It feels like an impossible task for a small film such as Shiva Baby to find staying power. Creating a vibe or tone that associates with the experience is an effective way for a film to capture a strong and passionate audience. Staying power comes in that, which is exactly what Emma Seligman creates. The anxiety, the discomfort, the anxiousness, is all there and is all so relatable. This gives it a distinct and unique experience. One that stays with you and encourages you to share it with others. It encourages you to talk to someone about it.

What makes Shiva Baby so different from other domestic dramadies is that this tone is so crucial to the experience. The connection you create with Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is powerful, unassuming, and ultimately beautiful. That connection comes from a familiarity with her experience, even if your sugar daddy never showed up to a family funeral. We can all relate to what she’s feeling. That anxiety comes from the fear of a secret being revealed or confronting a situation that we are not ready to confront. Even the uncomfortable conversations that come from family gatherings. Shiva Baby smashes these uncomfortable situations (along with a few more) and painstakingly walks us through that experience. There is no reprieve, there is no break, and you cannot look away. As uncomfortable as that is, it is also incredibly brilliant and brings you closer to the characters without you consciously knowing it.

Beautiful Work in Front of and Behind the Camera

Creating a subconscious emotional connection lies heavily with the filmmaking. Emma Seligman is a writer/director I am unfamiliar with, and is quite impressive in her feature-length debut. Her command of tone and story is beautifully balanced. It is a funny film, with humor that doesn’t distract from the story. It more so exploits a familiar scenario to draw you in with relatable humor. Her control of tone is intelligently displayed with the use of Ariel Marx’s score. A score that is sharp, well-crafted, and dispersed all throughout the film to intensify the film’s tone. Much of the same is true for Maria Rusche’s cinematography, which will not blow you away, but perfectly aides the story. Shiva Baby is brilliant because of its experience, which only happens because of the incredible filmmaking. Top to bottom, it is impressive and Emma Seligman deserves much praise.

The close-knit nature of this family and friends is important to portray and comes across well. More important is the emotion and reality in the characters, most of which come from these great performances. Rachel Sennott is a future star and commands this film with elegant poise. Molly Gordon turns in another great supporting role that is both very funny and beautifully deep. These are the two standouts, both in their relationship with each other and to this story. So much is communicated without words and leads to the overall tension of the film. Sennott’s ability to convey all the right emotions throughout as she spirals out of control is at times beautiful and others harrowing. For as much is done behind the camera to create the tension on screen, it’s hard not to have your breath taken away from what’s happening in front.

There’s Something Missing

As breathtaking as Shiva Baby sometimes is, there is something at the bottom of this film that is missing. Putting a finger on what exactly is missing has its difficulties because in this case, the specifics are hard. What is missing is the deeper thing this film is about. Not that every film needs to solve or address some existential crisis or greater theme. Everything doesn’t have to mean something, however, in the case of Shiva Baby I was primed for it. The way that this film so beautifully unfolds its reveal, opens you up in a vulnerable and thoughtful way. By the end, I wanted to be taught a greater meaning or punched in the gut by a harsh reality. The work is done, and the table is set for it, but it never really comes. This unfortunately left me slightly disappointed.

Even in the face of that slight (and I mean slight) disappointment, Shiva Baby is remarkable. It is a film that grows with time and those are my favorite movies. It moves converse to many modern films and requires your undivided attention, and then makes good on that by staying with you for so long. The beauty in the performances, especially that of Rachel Sennott’s subtly is a revelation. Plus, at a little over an hour, the investment is minimal. Shiva Baby is a must-watch and if you embrace the discomfort on the surface, you will be rewarded with such a beautiful experience. Maybe that is the deeper theme I was hoping for all along.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and follow Aubrey @ajmckay24.

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1 comment

Nick Kush April 29, 2021 - 9:26 am

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