Shiva Baby looks and sounds like a comedy but it’s actually a horror movie about being in your twenties, with a surprising vein of emotion. The film centers on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college senior whose Gender Studies major makes her parents anxious as it doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific career. They also don’t like — or even totally believe — that Danielle is bisexual. When Danielle joins her parents for the shiva of a family friend, they coach her on what to say about her future prospects and to be on the lookout for potential job opportunities. It’s funny and awkward and soul-crushing for Danielle, who already feels guilty for her lack of ambition. Danielle also has a secret: she’s a sugar baby, a young woman who is paid for her sexual favors. She tells her parents, who support her financially, that she earns extra money by babysitting; she tells her sugar daddy that she needs the money to pay for college. When her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), turns out to be a guest at the shiva, Danielle realizes that the lies she’s been telling everyone are about to be exposed. To make things even more complicated, her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), is also in attendance.
With the exception of one brief scene, the entire movie takes place, seemingly in real time, at a shiva at someone’s suburban-ish house in the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens. Writer and director Emma Seligman drops you into Danielle’s world without much explanation, and there’s something startling and claustrophobic when you realize you’re going to be in the same location for the entire movie. That feeling of claustrophobia echoes Danielle’s own anxiety around her overbearing parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). They mean well, but they can’t give Danielle what she needs, which is simply a little bit of space to figure out who she is and what she wants. Seligman’s funny, layered screenplay simmers with Danielle’s hidden emotions. Not only is Danielle forced to confront the reality of her sugar daddy, who is a father and husband as well as her benefactor, but she must deflect her ex Maya, who knows her well enough to guess that something is amiss. But the real complexity is that Danielle seems to have feelings for both Max and Maya, and the depth of her attachments confuse her.
Shiva Baby began as a short film and will now apparently be spun out into a TV show for HBO. It says a lot about the strength of Seligman’s writing that Danielle’s predicament can suggest longer formats, and I often thought of TV shows like Fleabag and Girls while I was watching it. But mostly I thought of horror movies. The camerawork and creepy soundtrack of plucked strings gave even the most banal interactions a feeling of psychological terror. The camera zooms in on Danielle’s face when she finds herself stuck listening to gossip, and closely tracks her when she excuses herself to help out with little chores. As she moves around the unfamiliar house, she seems trapped and unable to leave, hounded by Max, Maya, her parents, and maybe her own impulses. She drinks wine, eats, takes selfies, and acts out, making life even more complicated for herself. You feel for her, because she’s young, and because she doesn’t fully know her own confusion and pain. By the end of the movie, though, there is a sense of resolution. Nothing is wrapped up and there are no cathartic conflicts, but there’s a moment when Danielle lets down her guard and you see how lost she is in her life, and how desperate to be found.