Shiva Baby Review: Brazen Anxiety meets Simmering Sensuality
Shiva Baby (2020) captures the age of anxiety that our generation languishes in. My favorite scene is where the protagonist Rachel, hazily gazes at the child of her sugar daddy in a crowded room that shines a mirror at this specific type of dissociative panic. It’s also a stark reflection of the culture of feminism we inhabit. A mirage of sexual liberation that is often a veil for power. One where the optics of power are more important than the power itself until you are bombarded with the truth. Rachel chases it as the tension unfolds and she bounces from person to person trying to control a situation unraveling to her. The dynamic shifts and there are interesting subtleties about capitalism, patriarchy, and internalized misogyny. Max is our antagonist who at the start of the film seems like a rich man who does not understand the boundaries of sex work (neither does Rachel) and a classic hetero douche who she is benefiting from. We want her to use him, and not be used but this shatters as they are both re-introduced in a setting around her parents and his wife.
The mask she has been wearing as a shield slips as she has to watch him lose interest, this double-edged sword regarding infantilization. The limits of your sensuality are straddled throughout. He is attracted to an element of her naïveté and youth but this is also what pushes him to detach from her. We also see her projecting her shock that this arrangement is eliciting an emotional reaction she cannot contain as she grasps for attention so she can feel that she is directing the chaos but is overwhelmed by envy. It’s not clear what Rachel wants as she gulps wine and stares at Max’s family but it certainly isn’t necessarily him.
Perhaps the stability, life, or perceived success but Max’s wife Kim triggers, but whatever it is she falls down the rabbit hole into an impulsive meltdown. Dianna Agron delivers an impeccable performance of a mother, wife, and businesswoman aware but untouched by her husband’s predictable mediocrity. Rachel Sennott states in an interview “Max doesn’t feel powerful in his relationship because his wife is more successful than him, so he has to cosplay as this really successful guy because he feels insecure in his own marriage.” It’s a deep dive into how the layers of insecurity influence our behavior. Rachel both tries to hide elements of herself whilst drip-feeding Kim just enough to hold onto some kind of adrenaline. There is a relatable experience at play as Rachel struggles to face up to the various versions of herself she has to display within one setting.
The pacing is fantastic. Ariel Marx who did the score encapsulates the claustrophobic existential crisis building as the story unfolds. It is set in a house during a Shiva, Emma Seligman uses a fresh feminist lens that combines elements of horror, suspense, drama, and comedy. There are touching moments that grip your heartstrings and passive-aggressive dialogue that is delivered brilliantly. Maya, Rachel’s ex-girlfriend hovers within the love rectangle that is combusting and she chases Rachel around unaware she is crumbling trying to throw cruel jabs in a bid to hide her true feelings of longing. These are revealed in a touchy scene that pokes fun at the cultural etiquette of social media and the myopic nature of a millennial mindset.
Layers of sexual angst and the optics of being a floating college graduate unaware of what’s next sit at the surface. It quietly has you rooting for Rachel and Maya who are interrupted twice by Max which is a beautiful metaphor for men and our ability to center them in our lives despite our destinies being firmly rooted towards each other. Food plays this pervasive role where people gawp and whisper about Rachels’ weight and eating disorder as she swats away family friends who are forcing her to confront her life plans. Rachel has many micro outbursts that connect characters whilst others remain unaware and Emma Seligman does well to magnify the level of intuition women have when it comes to non-verbal cues as a form of communication. It incites anxiety in a visceral way that is relatable despite being biographically specific to the director's cultural context. It is a coming of age story about a bisexual Jewish young woman who is having a panic attack because of a trifecta of issues that chase her around a house.