Why the expertly written ‘Shiva Baby’ on Amazon is worth your time


Some movies execute exactly what they were going for. “Shiva Baby,” written and directed by Emily Seligman, is a fine example of a movie getting just about everything right. 

In this case, it’s all the anxieties and utter chaos that can occur during a shiva, the seven-day mourning period following a first degree relative’s death that takes place at a family home-combined with the cinema ingredients of an aimless young woman, Danielle (a very good Rachel Sennott) running into her ex, Max (Danny Deferrai) during said shiva, and finding out he is married to a gorgeous businesswoman in Kim (Dianna Agron). Oh, and they have an 18-month old baby. Throw in the woman’s hyper-thinking and over-analyzing yet loving parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) and her curious ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon), along with the endless questions thrown her way by relatives, and you have 77 minutes of dark comedy with some unexpected pathos that just about any human being, Jewish or not, should be able to relate to.

Expert writing and dedicated yet natural performances are the key ingredients here. I really enjoyed Seligman’s screenplay (adapted from her 2018 short film) and the way it allows the cast, full of character actors/aka faces you know yet can’t name, to play off the dialogue and actions in order to keep the audience off-balance. That way, as we navigate through this sad ritual overstuffed with sexual yet comedic tension and romantic drama, the element of surprise is both our best friend and our worst enemy. We don’t know what to make of Danielle, a seemingly smart woman who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life just yet-but has plenty of people trying to think for her. 

You’ve been there. The young gun in a home full of weary travelers who look at you as the future or a pending failure. The funeral with way too much food, not enough exit strategies, and lots of questions incoming. Every entrance to a room is blocked by a needy aunt asking why you’re so skinny, don’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend, look so worried, and haven’t collected a master’s degree already. To some family members, you are the kid who never grew up, and the pressures of that circumstance, mixed with a few too many bad decisions, puts Sennott’s unlikely heroine at the center of a tough spot. 

Draper’s non stop talking and moving mother is the scene stealer. She has a different story for her daughter with everyone, with some tales placing her in graduate school and others having her find a creative outlet somehow. From the moment she steps out of the car and starts razing Melamed’s forgetful yet cheerful Joel and asking about her hair twice, you can see where Danielle got the anxiety from. Up until this film, Draper had made her biggest Hollywood dent on television and small movie roles where you noticed her only for a fleeting second. Here, she’s a tour de force, educating her daughter while putting up fences and fronts around the truth, which she already suspects. It’s high wire work in the middle of an esteemed ensemble, including Jackie Hoffman and Deferrari, who is a dead ringer for “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radnor. 

Clocking in at only 77 minutes and available right now on Amazon Prime Video for $6, “ShivaBaby” is worth double that price. This is the first screenplay in 2021 to make me scream memorable and one to keep in mind later this year. You can tell it was created for a reason by Seligman, who makes her feature directorial debut here, and not just manufactured for profit. It feels personal and real every second, even for a film rated 18+ and dealing with fragile and murky issues like bisexuality and growing pains of a different kind. Why do young people have to figure everything out when the people handing them down advice and orders needed all that time to get wise about life?

Fascinating stuff. Watch this film, one that executed all of its original goals-or at least did a pretty great job convincing us.