Shiva Baby: A Delightful Comedy of Errors


Danielle (Rachel Sennott) holding a bagel.

Emma Seligman’s feature film debut Shiva Baby was originally released as a film festival short in 2018. Shiva Baby is about a college-age sugar baby who runs into her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend at a Jewish funeral with her close family and friends.

One strength of the film is the dizzyingly close psychic distance to the lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott). Throughout the film, we see her well-meaning family friends and relatives question her weight and health. 

The film highlights the topics of family, queerness, mental health, and sex work. While similar themes were explored in Black Swan by director Daron Aronosky, Shiva Baby feels less misogynistic and approaches mental health through an empathetic lens; in contrast, Black Swan finds glee in the terrifying aspects of mental illness. Part of this may be attributed to a woman writer and director as opposed to men. While Black Swan’s characters were submissive and weak to the seduction of others, Shiva Baby’s characters interact in bold and calculated ways.

Seligman manipulates tension beautifully throughout the film through claustrophobic interactions between Danielle and the other characters. Part of this humor comes from a comedy of errors which includes the dramatic irony throughout of only the audience, Danielle, and her sugar daddy knowing the relationship between the two. Near the beginning, Danielle’s mother drags her over to talk with Danielle’s sugar daddy. Later, Danielle has multiple interactions with her sugar daddy’s wife and his child. There is also a conversation between Danielle, her ex-girlfriend, and her sugar daddy. 

Danielle wants to be more like her well-liked ex-girlfriend Maya who is headed to law school. Their ongoing rivalry reveals a simmering sexual tension. Danielle finds her power through sex work and controlling her diet. What she needs to do is recognize that she has no control over her future and needs to feel comfortable being herself.

The majority of the film is set at the funeral reception in someone’s house. It is impressive that this one-location short film was expanded to a full-length feature film that not only captured my attention but held it throughout the film. 

If you are looking for a light comedy, then this film is not for you. However, if you enjoy a nuanced slice of life film, then I would highly recommend it. While this film can be stressful to watch at times, it is also funny and wonderful at capturing the human experience.

Shiva Baby is available to stream on HBO Max.

4/5 stars.