by Lauren Woodzicka
Watching Shiva Baby reminded me why I love horror movies. Of course, Shiva Baby is not strictly a horror film—it toes the line between comedy and thriller, never quite landing on either. Both the story and setting are anxiety inducing and cramped, leading viewers to reminisce about their own awkward family encounters with all the horrorand humor that entails.
The story follows Danielle, a college senior forced to attend a shiva with her overbearing parents. Shiva Baby is an expansion of director Emma Seligman’s 2018 short film that she produced while a student at Tisch. Seligman grew up in a Reform Ashkenazi Jewish community, and the film employs a certain amount of cultural specificity while creating a palpable narrative of family, sexuality, and existentialism.
Family is all encompassing, claustrophobic. Daddy issues, mommy issues, all of it an ouroboros of blame. And nothing is more guilt and shame ridden than a funeral. Any conversation with family leads to the dead-end reveal that their liberal arts darling lives off handouts and has dry rot in their bathroom (perhaps I’m letting my own problems take precedence here). Danielle’s family is all-encompassing and nightmarishly doting. Her relatives pinch and prod, remarking on how thin and grown up she is. Their infantilization is only made more unpleasant when she spots her ex girlfriend soaking up praise brought on by law school prospects and successful final exams. Her relationship with her ex, Maya, is discussed in hushed tones, with Danielle’s parents both reluctantly accepting and curtly dismissive.
In her pursuit to both please and disappoint her parents, she finds herself a sugar daddy. In classic tragi-comedy form, her sugar daddy is also at the shiva, flocked by his wife and daughter. His wife is the primary breadwinner of the family, leading Danielle to retort that “being a girl boss isn’t really my thing.” The film tackles the divide between third and fourth wave feminism, positioning the girl boss and sugar baby as opposites. Both have the promising allure of freedom—Danielle even remarks that sugaring is empowering— but both operate within a limited and archetypical framework of womanhood.
Not to be grandiose and overgeneralizing, but being a woman in your twenties requires a degree of denial. Danielle is forced to perform caricatures of herself to please her family, her sugar daddy, her ex-girlfriend, and even the onlookers watching her story play out on the screen. She is her own voyeur, as Margaret Atwood would say. It can be gratifying to be an object of the scopophilic, male gaze—there is a degree of protection that conforming to male expectations provides (just search “trad wife” on TikTok). Many women have been failed by modern feminism and late-stage capitalism (specifically those marginalized beyond just gender). In a world where the average student loan debt is $38,000 and rent costs most of your paycheck, the girlboss lifestyle of the 2010’s is a glamorized fallacy, even less fantastical than being a sugar baby or trophy wife.
Shiva Baby dabbles in this type of existentialism in the same way one might discuss the weather. Danielle remains remarkably human despite the physically and mentally confining environment of a family affair. The film ends with Danielle crammed in her father’s van, surrounded by family, friends, and foes. She grabs Maya’s hand, and they stare out the window, creating their own world while wedged in the passenger seat.
Lauren Woodzicka is an Appleton-based youth educator and writer. Among other things, she is passionate about movies, writing obscure ramblings in her Notes app, and spoiling her cat.