Shiva Baby – growing up often comes with complications
Shiva Baby is about near college graduate, Danielle, gets paid by her sugar daddy and rushes to meet her neurotic parents at a family shiva. Upon arrival, she is accosted by various estranged relatives about her appearance and lack of post-grad plans, while her confident ex-girlfriend, Maya, is applauded by everyone for getting into law school. Danielle’s day takes an unexpected turn when her sugar daddy, Max, arrives at the shiva with his accomplished wife, Kim, and crying baby. As the day unfolds, Danielle struggles to keep up different versions of herself, fend off pressures from her family and confront her insecurities without completely losing it. It’s a funny film that also deals with the interplay between self-esteem and sexuality.
Available in Canada in select theatres and on VOD on April 2nd, 2021. The film had it’s World Premiere at SXSW and was also a TIFF Selection in 2020. It stars Rachel Sennott (TAHARA), Dianna Agron (GLEE) and Molly Gordon (BOOKSMART), and is directed by Canadian Emma Seligman in her feature film directorial debut. The film was at numerous film festivals and received a ton of great reviews (currently 98% on Rotten Tomatoes) including TIFF and SXSW film festivals.
I made the short film version of SHIVA BABY when I was 21 and in my last year at NYU. At the time, I was slowly realizing that the false “sexual power” I’d discovered earlier in college was burning out and unearthing an incredibly low self-esteem. As I got closer to graduating, my anxiety about what my future would look like steadily increased. Despite gaining independence and agency through my sexuality in college, I was still very much a child in my parent’s eyes.
At this time, some of my close friends were sugar babies and like many girls at NYU, I briefly tried to be one too. For my final project, my professor encouraged me to write about something I knew and I felt that I knew sugar babies and shivas pretty well.
Having grown up in an insular Jewish community, I attended a number of shivas. They always amused me because despite the fact that someone just died, people still ate bagels, complained, showed off their children, asked nosy questions and crossed personal boundaries. I always loved the contrast and thought it would be the perfect setting for a coming of age story. Family events can be filled with the utmost love and warmth, but they are also pervaded by generational differences that make you question your untraditional or non existent career path and your queerness. I wanted to put Danielle in an environment where she’d be confronted by a symphony of all her deepest insecurities.
SHIVA BABY is about a young woman grappling with family, tradition, and independence. More importantly though, it is about that bitter realization many young women face when they realize that their sexual power isn’t as far-reaching as they thought and that their self-esteem can’t be entirely built upon sexual validation. For some women, this process takes years. For Danielle, it happens in a day, with her neurotic family, her sugar daddy, his wife and baby and Danielle’s accomplished ex-girlfriend all in tow to witness her self-combustion.
Over the last three years, SHIVA BABY has taken me out of my adolescence and into early adulthood. It has slowly but drastically changed my perspective on young female sexuality and the humor, horror, confusion, and exhilaration that accompanies it. Adding lox bagels and nosy older Jewish women to this turning point in a young woman’s life has brought me so much joy and allowed me to reckon with the debilitating powerlessness I felt throughout adolescence and college.
While writing, re-writing, shooting and editing this film, I have kept a mission statement on my desk that reads “I want other young women to feel heard in their insecurities that have been inflicted upon them.” For me, trying to be both a nice Jewish girl with a career ahead of her and an independent young woman with a liberated sexuality has been the greatest balancing act of my life. I hope young women are able to watch SHIVA BABY and feel seen in the contradictory and suffocating pressures placed upon them. Most of all, I hope they find some humor and at least a temporary sense of relief watching Danille’s story.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.