‘Shiva Baby’ and the Feeling of Failing

A still from 'Shiva Baby'. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is shown in close-up, centre frame, wearing a black blaer and white shirt, exiting a house. Her dark durly hair is pulled back into a low bun, she is wearing gold hoops, she looks disappointed, her mouth is relaxed.
Utopia

I am not who I thought I would be. Chances are, neither are you. We rarely achieve the success we envision for ourselves at eighteen years old. Even when we do experience a semblance of what we wanted, it never looks like we think it would. To mistake this reality for failure is not only a common shared experience, but a hallmark of growing up. Shiva Baby understands this feeling better than any coming-of-age film I’ve seen.

A marker of the early twenties experience is the unmistakable suffocating mixture of loss and longing. You cannot go back and fix your inevitable mistakes, but you have more mistakes to make before you can move forward. Shame abounds as you fumble your way through life, breaking things that you cannot put back together. You are a child trapped in an adult body.

Shiva Baby is about this moment in time. College senior Danielle (given life by the lovely Rachel Sennott) is pressured by her family to attend a shiva for a peripheral family member. Danielle has been making money as a sugar baby for businessman Max (Danny Deferrari), and flailing to figure out what exactly it is she wants to do with her life; she’s majoring in some sort of combined media/gender studies programme, but tells everyone that business classes are involved to prevent them from questioning her further. At the shiva, Danielle is repeatedly compared to her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) — an aspiring lawyer with a clear path in life — by her family members. She pushes away her mother and Maya during the majority of the shiva because they do the majority of prodding about her life and future.

When Max turns out to be an old business partner of her fathers and shows up to the shiva, things go even further south very quickly. He’s revealed to have a wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), and a daughter. All of this information disturbs Danielle, but she doesn’t want to lose her reliance on Max, either. Her family tries to get her to take on an internship with Max or his wife, they prod her about her dating life around Max and Kim. The film forces us to experience this through Danielle’s eyes; when she gets stuck in a circle with her parents, Max and Kim, and older members of the family and they begin to sing her a song from her childhood, we feel her red-hot embarrassment through a slowly shifting warm colour grade and distorted close up shots that resemble horror cinematography.

Utopia

And yet Max being at a family event isn’t what’s truly bothering Danielle. It doesn’t help, but the root cause of the issue is not so easily pinpointed. She is a victim of the loss and longing so many of us develop. It contorts itself over the course of the shiva to feel more like failure. When she asks her mother if she’s disappointed in her, her voice betrays dejection; like she’s reserved to her fate as the daughter who couldn’t live up to her parents’ expectations. 

What strikes me about Shiva Baby is that Danielle encompasses so many of the traits that make us who we are, and yet can often be misinterpreted as failure by others wishing to pass judgement. She’s shy, she doesn’t have life figured out, she’s a sugar baby, she’s bisexual, she has an interest in liberal arts. All of these things are incredibly common and do not betray a lack of ambition or a lack of worth. They combine to be Danielle’s becoming, even if that becoming feels later to her than she would have liked.

There are plenty of coming-of-age films where failure plays a large part. From classics like Rebel Without a Cause to 80s touchstones like The Breakfast Club to contemporary teen comedies like Edge of Seventeen; dozens of characters throughout history have been shown coming to terms with their unmet expectations. What makes Shiva Baby stand out is its quiet intensity. This isn’t a film of theatrical breakdowns or heart wrenching monologues. Instead, its power is found in its ability to show us Danielle’s interior pain through the build-up of small moments that ebb and flow as the fictional gathering continues.

The culmination of these moments comes near the end of the film, when Kim tries to make Danielle hold her baby. Danielle refuses the child politely, but Kim is astute; she knows what Danielle has done with her husband, she knows Danielle is uncomfortable, and she wants to keep pushing her beyond her limits. She backs Danielle into a vase and it comes crashing to the floor, startling the entire party. When Danielle realises she can’t fix her mess, she breaks down. She sobs on the floor, finally accepting a helping hand from her mother and Maya. She lets herself feel what she’s so sorely misinterpreted, not that she’s a failure in any way, but that she has so much left to figure out.

We are hard on ourselves. Danielle is no different. After 78 minutes of beating herself up over her mistakes, Shiva Baby leaves us with acceptance of what we cannot change. Danielle is stuck in a minivan with Max, Kim, their baby, an old woman, her parents, and Maya. But she’s okay. Maya has her hand and things will go on. Though her journey isn’t over, she realises that there is much left to be learned and experienced before she can consider herself a failure. It is comforting and invigorating. It is a reminder that, though you may feel like your life is over, you’re still just a baby.

by McKinzie Smith

McKinzie (she/her) is a Film Studies graduate from Portland, Oregon. Soon she’ll be pursuing an MA in Journalism, but until then she’s watching so many movies all the time! She loves French films, french fries, and her French Bulldogs. You can find her words in Little White Lies and Willamette Week, or follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @notmckinzie

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