We’ve all been to uncomfortable family and community gatherings. But probably not one including your ex-girlfriend, sugar daddy (wife and baby daughter in tow) and your parents, too.
Welcome to “Shiva Baby” (in limited theaters including New York, Miami and Boston and more and on-demand April 2), the story of 20-something Danielle (Rachel Sennott) who tries to keep all her secrets intact as they literally crowd around her during a shiva. Shiva is the period of mourning after a Jewish burial, typically involving (way too much) eating and mingling at the home of a relative of the deceased, in an effort to comfort the bereaved.
Danielle’s parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) parade her around trying to help her find a job post-college graduation while she tries to figure out how to handle conversations with her ex Maya (Molly Gordon), her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) and his wife (former “Glee” star Dianna Agron).
With Passover underway, “Shiva Baby” may be the the perfect movie to watch this holiday season – at least if you don’t mind being a little uncomfortable with your relatives.
“I feel like there’s always an uncomfortable moment at a Seder. Why not have it be around this film?” Gordon jokes on a recent Zoom call.
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“I think it’s a good movie for different generations to watch together,” adds writer/director Emma Seligman.
Some plot points may require some explaining to older generations – i.e. what a sugar baby is and how there’s an app for that – but others will apply to everyone. Feeling lost and stuck with problems (literally) swirling around you, for instance.
While film lovers of all backgrounds can enjoy the film, some one-liners cater to a Jewish audience (Agron’s character Kim, who isn’t Jewish, pronounces the dessert rugelach as arugula.) Moments like these (in addition to Danielle choking on a bagel with lox) may go over people’s heads but they aren’t dealbreakers in appreciating “Shiva Baby.”
“You don’t have to be a Jewish person to watch this film and understand the dynamics at play and feel that you’ve also experienced very similar things,” says Agron, who is Jewish. The Jewish nature of the film, however, definitely made her family excited.
“I had previously played a nun, so they were like, ‘Finally you’re stoking some of our kind of history in your filmmaking,’ ” she says.
Gordon, too, appreciated the chance to connect with her identity. “It was such a treat, to get to be in something that celebrates our culture and to be reminded of so many hilarious moments with my Jewish cousins,” she says. “But also, it’s such a universal movie just about family dynamics. So many of my friends who aren’t Jewish feel so seen and connected to it.”
The movie was filmed in August 2019, and everyone was piled on top of each other filming most scenes inside a single house. It’s an especially harrowing watch given the social distancing measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic that have since taken place.
“It was that sweaty, and it was that tight,” Seligman says. “So that didn’t hurt trying to alter the performances to make it seem more claustrophobic.”
Watching characters crammed together in a small space, picking over a buffet of food and getting in each other’s faces may startle some after spending a year in quarantine. Even vaccinated people “will say no to going to group events,” after seeing the tight quarters movie, jokes Agron.
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The former “Glee” star plans to watch the virtual GLAAD Awards next month, which will feature a tribute to on her late co-star Naya Rivera’s character Santana. Rivera died last July, which Agron says is something that reconnected Agron and her castmates.
“It’s been incredibly hard as you can imagine. Losing a friend is not something that you ever want to experience and it’s not the first time,” she says. (Rivera’s passing follows the deaths of “Glee” co-stars Cory Monteith and Mark Salling.) “She was so spirited and so it’s really brought a new kind of constant communication with all of us, which is so nice because sometimes as a cast you’re not able to make as much time for each other.”
She feels a similar kinship with the “Shiva Baby” cast.
“We’ve really created a bond where we’ve been in all different places during this time but we’ve stayed really connected,” she says.