Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 SXSW Film Film Festival. Utopia releases the film in theaters and on digital on Friday, April 2.
As probably the single most stigmatized profession, sex work has long held a salacious fascination for filmmakers. From “Pretty Woman” to “True Romance,” sex workers are either depicted as the “hooker with the heart of gold” or a damsel in distress needing salvation (typically from a man). It wasn’t until recently that filmmakers started creating more nuanced takes on the world’s oldest profession, embracing sex workers as fully autonomous characters who don’t all secretly hate what they do or long to be rescued.
Films such as “Cam” (Netflix) and TV shows like “Harlots” (Hulu) and “The Girlfriend Experience” (Starz) each move beyond tired tropes seeking only titillation or pity for its sex worker characters. As discussion of sex worker rights moves into mainstream feminist dialogues, entertainment media has thankfully followed suit. Entering fearlessly into this fledgling genre is “Shiva Baby,” a sharp-witted dark comedy from first-time feature writer/director Emma Seligman. Bearing a likeness to the early work of Joey Soloway and Jennifer Westfeldt, “Shiva Baby” blends a claustrophobic Jewish humor with a sexy premise to deliver a lively debut.
The film opens with a young woman Danielle (Rachel Sennott) finishing up a session with her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari). Deferrari communicates everything you need to know about his character in this early scene — after fumbling with the cash, he extends an already awkward farewell into an even sadder extended hug. Brushing him off brusquely, Danielle arrives late to a family shiva (a Jewish funeral service), though she’s still not sure who died.
Exuding Jewish parental charm sans all the tired cliches are Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper). These two comedy mainstays have stuck around long enough to both enjoy indie icon status (Draper for “Thirtysomething” and “Obvious Child,” Melamed most notably for his work with the Coen brothers). They make a truly delightful duo as Danielle’s lovingly overbearing parents, but Draper’s Debbie is a particular breath of fresh air from the typical Jewish mother trope. In contrast to the maternal narcissism of “Transparent” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Debbie seems to actually put her daughter’s well-being ahead of her own self-interest, and it doesn’t make her any less funny.
On the contrary, she has some of the movie’s best lines, such as when she laments, “He’s married to a shiksa princess. Poor guy.” Or when she chides Danielle, “You are flirting with everyone, you are chugging your wine, you are sitting on a table! This isn’t a party!”
Granted, Danielle can be forgiven for chugging wine, since Max shows up at the shiva. It turns out, her sugar daddy used to work for her real daddy. Not only that, he’s married (to a shiksa). And they have a baby. Not only does she have to process this personal crisis in secret, but amidst a chorus of nosy Jewish aunties simultaneously chastising and praising her recent weight loss. What’s more, her high school sweetheart Maya (Molly Gordon) — or is she her sworn enemy? — is going to law school, while Danielle is totally directionless.
Seligman’s script is witty and pithy, with only a few lags in the action. The single setting is always a shrewd move for a first feature, especially one on a budget, though it does limit things visually. The conversational nature of the script lends itself to tight shots and quick edits, which has the effect of running suffocating circles around Danielle, who is usually centered while the other characters are shot over the shoulder, helping keep the focus on her inner turmoil. A tense string score ratchets up the tension, though this technique loses its bite after a few too many uses.
Maya and Danielle’s relationship, while much fretted about by busybody elders, is the film’s sweetest point. The two ping pong from bickering schoolgirls to flirty exes in flash before sharing what has got to be the hottest kiss any shiva ever inspired. Gordon, who charmed as the smarty who partied in “Booksmart,” does much of the heavy lifting here. As the more emotionally forward of the two, her swooning eyes and sheepish smiles are enough to flip anyone’s stomach — in a good way. Sennott is harder to pin down, bouncing between an opaque detachment and a frenetic inner panic. Both qualities make her a tough character to connect with, and hence care about.
“Shiva Baby” is strongest when viewed as an ensemble film, and the whirling energy surrounding Danielle in her hour of panic is what makes the film so engaging. Danielle is the eye of the hurricane, albeit not a calm one by any means, but it’s the bickering parents, deaf old ladies, and kibitzing neighbors that make it sing. As the old Jewish proverb says, it takes a village to raise a “Shiva Baby.”
“Shiva Baby” was scheduled to premiere at SXSW 2020.