Shiva Baby (2020): 25-year-old director Emma Seligman explores sex and power in chaotic feature film debut
The premise came to her in college: sugar baby meets sugar daddy at a Jewish shiva, revealing the uncomfortable realities hiding behind their transaction. Expanding upon the short film written for her final film school project, Seligman’s first full length film offers thoughtful insight into the experience of young women entering the modern minefield of sexual freedoms – and is a must-see for women everywhere.
The film opens with a dynamic that writer and director Emma Seligman became familiar with while studying at NYU. Though only attending one date organised through the ‘Seeking Arrangements’ app popular amongst her cohort, “I figured out [the power element] was not real,” Seligman said concerning her own experience. “At the time, I was realizing that the only power I had in my life that formed my self-worth was sexual validation or my ‘sexual power.’”
This anxiety and insecurity surrounding sexual empowerment is explored without judgement in her feminist dramedy, also notable for its dark humour.
While deftly skirting family friends keen to grill her on non-existent career plans, Danielle (played by actor and comedian Rachel Sennott, known for her outspoken twitter account @Rachel_Sennott) must deal with unforeseen consequences of her financial fling while dealing with the reappearance of her estranged ex-girlfriend who, with her law school ambitions and the pride of her parents, seems to outshine Danielle at every turn.
The film hits many of the benchmarks expected of a stand-out indie, with Sennott’s breakout performance, single-location filming (all in one house), and a tight budget. What really makes it special is the team of women behind its conception – from producers to assistants, “Shiva Baby” benefitted from a network of woman working to make Seligman’s vision a reality – an indie for the modern age.
The film is also noteworthy for its uncomplicated inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. Like Seligman, protagonist Danielle is confidently bisexual – a quality the writer and director felt was important due to the lack of accurate bi representation in cinema today.
Danielle’s loving but bemused family’s awkward acceptance of her past ‘special friendship’ with ex-girlfriend Maya (played by Molly Gordon) creates a strong backdrop for the generational disconnect that prevents Danielle from being able to share with her mother the chaos she is experiencing.
The protagonist becomes muted by traditional ideas about female sexuality, preventing her from reaching out for help from fear of judgement. Having found solace in the power she has as young, sexually desirable woman over older men, Danielle is not lying in her claim that she ‘needs’ the money; although her parents pay her rent, the affirmation her sex work provide becomes the foundation of her self-confidence.
The film questions how much power Danielle really has in this transaction. Swinging between painful realisation and physical comedy (with many visits to the buffet table) the film offers a sensitive insight into the psychology behind this modern brand of ‘sugar babying’. At its heart, however, Seligman’s indie remains a coming-of-age comedy about identity and womanhood.
And it’s funny! Built from her own experiences at shivas and “awkward family interactions,” Seligman presents a character who is “just… losing it, basically, over the course of the day.”
“Shiva Baby” is now available to stream on MUBI.