The coming-of-age genre has always been a popular one. A young person undergoing a significant transition is one of the best moments in time to capture on film. For most of the genre’s existence, the coming-of-age movie centers around high school students, primarily high school seniors, preparing to say goodbye to the school and community they grew up in before they embark on the next phase of their lives. It’s effective and has been the setting for dozens of beloved films in recent years like “Lady Bird,” “Booksmart,” and more. Most of these films tend to offer a bittersweet ending. The characters are sad to say goodbye to their friends and hometown but accept a new journey and approach their college years with excitement. But what happens after college?
Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby” explores that anxiety-inducing, stressful place. Seligman’s film follows Danielle (played superbly by Rachel Sennott), who is on the brink of graduating college and is struggling to figure out her next stage in life. She’s earning a degree in women’s studies, has no job lined up, and is currently making money as a sugar baby. The film takes place during a family friend’s Shiva (a Jewish gathering of mourners after a funeral service), where Danielle is forced to interact with her overbearing parents and relatives. And they ask her the dreaded question every college student loathes: “So what are you going to do now?”
Seligman doesn’t hold anything back and encompasses the horrors and anxiety of being in Danielle’s shoes. The film isn’t very long, only 77 minutes, but Seligman produces a stressful and honest portrayal of a young woman who is fresh out of college. Simply, everything that can go wrong in this situation does go wrong. Firstly, she notices her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) is at the Shiva. Second, everyone wants to know what Danielle is going to do with her life now that she is about to graduate, which she is still in the process of figuring out. No, she’s not going to graduate school or law school, unlike Maya, who will be. And no, she also doesn’t have a boyfriend. On top of that, her relatives say she lost weight and insinuates that she has an eating disorder, and pressures her to eat. But things get even worse when she sees her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), arrive with his wife and their newborn daughter – and that’s just the first 20 minutes.
What Seligman creates in “Shiva Baby” is the horror and stress of being a recent college graduate. For some reason, no one tells college students what it’s like in the real world. We’re just thrown into the deep end and hope we can swim. Even through the growing pains, high school seniors have an idea of what their next two to four years will look like: college, an apprenticeship, a job, etc. But once you finish, what comes next? You’re left to figure it out for yourself, and in that process, are constantly being asked, “What are you doing?” Seligman perfectly explores that by filming up close and personal to the point that all the relatives look like they have a nefarious secret agenda. It’s stressful and jarring where, like Danielle, you can feel like you’re constantly being inspected, disappointing your family, or not living up to your fullest potential. Yes, 18 is scary. But 22 is even more frightening.
Throughout the entire film, Danielle is never calm. She’s constantly trying to please her parents, make a good impression, keep calm around Max, and not let their secret be known to everyone. (And not make a scene in general, which is pretty hard to do.) Danielle is constantly blowing out fires only to be caught in another one right after, which perfectly describes early adulthood. As someone who recently graduated college during the pandemic, who was also raised by a Jewish mother, I feel the same way. We are still trying to figure out how to manage and fit into the adult world while also managing family members who constantly tell us what to do. Throughout the film, Danielle’s parents and family ask her questions and give her advice, but they’re never listening to her. It isn’t until she has an accident that directs everyone’s attention where she finally breaks down and succumbs to the pressure. When her mom asks her what’s wrong, she quietly replies, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” And her mother finally listens and says, “Everything’s gonna be fine.”
Entering adulthood is horrifying, especially when you have no idea what you want to do for the rest of your life. At this moment in Danielle’s life, everything is going wrong, and it seems like there is nothing she can do to fix it. She’s constantly being pressured by everyone who is incapable of listening to her because they still see her as a teenager. In her directorial debut, Seligman perfectly depicts this overwhelming, anxiety-ridden transitional stage in a person’s life. It’s tense, scary, uncomfortable, embarrassing, and painful. It’s growing pains, and that’s what makes “Shiva Baby” one of the most truthful coming-of-age films in recent years.
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