The Suffocating Mother in Shiva Baby (2020)


A bisexual sugar baby, her daddy, and a MILF Quinn Fabray walk into a shiva (the Jewish gathering during a time of mourning). That’s the premise of Emma Seligman’s feature film directorial debut Shiva Baby and the punchline is 78 minutes of pure anxiety. When Danielle (Rachel Sennott) rocks up to “the after-party for a shiva… reap[ing] the benefits of the buffet,” she runs into her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari), his ‘Girl Boss’ wife (Dianna Agron), and her overachieving ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon). Danielle’s ex-girlfriend, that is, not Dianna Agron’s. Tragically, Agron is straight in this otherwise very Sapphic film – a loss for all the annoying queer theatre kids who had their sexual awakenings because of a certain blonde, bitchy cheerleader in Glee (yes, I am talking about myself).

Shiva Baby is, without a doubt, the most stressful Jewish film since Uncut Gems. Family gatherings are inherently anxiety-inducing and Ariel Marx’s discordant score, lifted straight from a horror film, only adds to this sense of claustrophobia. The film takes place almost entirely in real-time and in one location as Danielle’s life quickly and chaotically unravels under the judgemental gazes of her family, friends and neighbours.

Complicated relationships are at the heart of Shiva Baby, and there is arguably no relationship more complex in a young woman’s life than the mother-daughter dynamic. Often intertwined in a relationship so close, mothers and daughters seem destined to lose one another through this very closeness. If you’ve ever cried over ‘Writer in the Dark’ by Lorde (“I am my mother’s child, I’ll love you ‘til my breathing stops…”) then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Debbie (Polly Draper) is the quintessential overbearing Jewish mother: suffocating and loving in equal parts. While I’ll always love Lady Bird for its love letter to the mother-daughter dynamic, Gerwig/Ronan walked so Seligman/Sennott could run. Debbie is constantly touching her daughter: tucking Danielle’s hair behind her ear, kissing her cheeks, or squeezing her waist. The maternal touch is both smothering and affectionate, and Danielle oscillates between leaning in and jumping away.

Food is often a tricky topic for mothers and daughters. Studies have shown that daughters will naturally adopt their mothers’ food-related thoughts and behaviours. In other words, mothers who constantly talk about their own weight, or whatever new diet they are on this week, are likely to raise daughters with similar unhealthy food-related thoughts and behaviours. (Side note: dieting doesn’t work – 95% of people who lose weight by dieting will reportedly regain it in one to five years.) Other studies report that daughters are more likely to engage in restrictive eating behaviours if they feel that their mother-daughter relationship lacks healthy boundaries, which is quite clearly the case in Shiva Baby.

Debbie and Danielle constantly argue over food. When her daughter isn’t eating anything, Debbie claims that she “look[s] like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps.” However, when Danielle’s plate is full, her mother questions and criticises what she is choosing to eat. It’s a lose-lose situation. Debbie isn’t the only one policing Danielle’s eating habits, however. Every older female figure that Danielle runs into (whether that be an aunt or a family friend) has something to say about her weight. Danielle even jokingly offers to bring out the scales in an attempt to stop the endless inappropriate comments and unwanted touches.

Debbie has a lot of expectations for her daughter, from her career to her love life, which Danielle feels that she is failing. When the film climaxes with Danielle’s very public breakdown, she tearfully asks her mother if she is “disappointed” in her. When trying to comfort her sobbing daughter, Debbie tells her that “Everything’s gonna be fine. You’re gonna get a great job. You’re gonna meet a great… man.” The pause before “man” encapsulates Debbie’s policing of her daughter’s sexuality. In the film’s first five minutes, Debbie whispers to Danielle that there’s to be “no funny business with [her ex-girlfriend] Maya.” She watches the couple like a hawk, ready to intervene if she doesn’t approve. Debbie frequently invalidates her daughter’s bisexuality, believing it to be an “experiment” that she should be “done” with by now.Shiva Baby ends with eight people in one car. Claustrophobia dominates the film and the mother-daughter dynamic. While Debbie does love her daughter, Danielle ultimately needs distance to breathe.

Francesca Sylph

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Shiva Baby | Official Trailer | Utopia

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