Film review: Shiva Baby

Film review: Shiva Baby (2020)

Shiva Baby demonstrates the continuing power and richness of the classic theater trope of a dinner party gone bad. The film is a fast paced comedy that concentrates on family dynamics, inter-generational conflict, sexual complexities, and social repression.

But not everyone gathered for the shiva in Shiva Baby understands the anguish and panic of the fewer central characters. They are unaware of the crises all around them, like the unobservant peasants in Peter Bruegel’s “The Fall of Icarus,” or Americans who don’t vote.

While some family members are working the room, others are panicked because their deepest secrets are coming uncovered.

Most plays expose those secrets to the whole entourage, a necessity of live staging when all characters are confined to one room. But the film medium permits private conversations, of course, and lets characters move to back yards or driveways more easily than live staging allows. Still, the central characters risk eavesdropping and unexpected interruptions.

Shiva Baby exploits this, providing the audience with exposition and some confrontations in brief private exchanges, and then returning the characters to the crowded rooms, and a need to speak indirectly.

The film wonderfully presents multi-person conversations in which one character indirectly taunts another character, or asks loaded but seemingly innocent questions that threaten to expose the other’s damaging secrets. These attacks are heard but not understood by most of the people who think they are in the conversation.

Underneath the small talk chatter and froth there are serious dangers in trying to dodge lethal, focused cross-examination questions. Lies are hastily invented, and room exits are abruptly engineered, but there is no place to hide.

This device demands very good writing and good acting, and Shiva Baby delivers both.

This review might make Shiva Baby seem like a talky film, but it is not. The film effectively employs movement and objects to keep the chaos and tension high — a misplaced cellphone with an incriminating screen, two bracelets, the car, food, household and religious objects, and the annoyed and annoying baby. The film has a lively camera, and a fast pace.

It’s not easy for two people to renegotiate their secret, complicated, improper, intimate relationship in a crowd of family, with their negotiation spoken in code, interrupted, and resumed in another room, only to be interrupted again. With high stakes, this interrupted dialog is very tense for the characters, and very comic for the viewer.

Thank you for asking: the primary thematic point of Shiva Baby seems to be that the bourgeois pretense of order, success, upward mobility, and traditional professed values is a veneer that sometimes comes unglued. Underneath that veneer, some people live entirely differently. And they live under constant scrutiny.

Shiva Baby (2020) was written and directed by Emma Seligman, at about the age of 25. Now that is something a parent could brag about at a gathering without having to make stuff up.


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