What happens when a sugar baby runs into her sugar daddy at a Jewish shiva? It’s not a joke, it’s Shiva Baby.
while at a shiva with her family. But it’s also a much more introspective film than you’d guess from such a description, and delves deep into the insecurity and anxiety of finding yourself as a young woman. It’s a
that feels new but also prematurely familiar, like the melodies of High Holiday prayers.
Rachel Sennot plays Danielle, a senior at NYU who moonlights as a sugar baby. It’s not that she desperately needs the money — her liberal Jewish parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), still pay her bills. Rather, Danielle’s in it for the thrill. When she’s with her daddies, she’s in control, sexually empowered, and desired. But in her own life, she’s lost. With vague ambitions to go into publishing, she stands out among the would-be lawyers, doctors, and
in her community. Her one meaningful romantic relationship, with her high-school sweetheart and best friend Maya (Molly Gordon) has been written off as “a phase.” All this repressed anxiety comes boiling to the surface when she’s summoned to a shiva for a family friend, only to find that Max (Danny Deferrari), one of the men she’s been seeing, is there, too. Not only does he know her parents, he’s married to one of the dreaded girlbosses (Dianna Agron). Oh, and they have a newborn.
“Shivas are so interesting because — for
Reform Ashkenazi Jews
, at least — they feel like any other family function,” Seligman told Refinery29 from her parents’ house in Toronto ahead of the film’s screening TIFF. “It’s just crossing boundaries, personal questions, bragging about children and grandchildren, networking, cruising, complaining, and oversharing. I always thought that it was funny that despite the fact that someone has died, the conversation topics stay the same.”
Seligman started working on the film — which started as a short, and then was expanded into a feature – as a film student at NYU. “A lot of my friends at NYU were sugar babies,”she said, “and I wanted to write something that took place in the Jewish community because I felt like I understood those characters really well and write dialogue for them.
There’s an anxious, kinetic energy to the film that could only come from such an intrinsic understanding of this particular slice of Jewish life. In the wrong hands, Danielle’s mom’s constant fretting over food, her daughter’s clothes, her own appearance, her friends’ daughters careers, and her husband’s absent-mindedness, for example, could easily veer into anti-Semitic parody. But Seligman toes the line effortlessly, mining real experiences for comedy and emotion.
Casting was the real challenge. Not only did Seligman have to find actors willing to work on a tiny budget, they also had to feel authentic to the material. “We can’t have a bunch of Gentiles in this movie,” she joked.
Sennot, who plays the lead, is not Jewish, a fact that continues to confound fans of her stand-up comedy. “She told me that like someone stopped her on the street and was like, I love it, you’re doing Jewish comedy, but you’re not Jewish,’ Seligman said. “And Rachel was like, ‘What does that mean?’ I said:
I think they just mean you’re anxious
Still, it does bring up an interesting question, and one that has come up recently in reference to
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
: Should non-Jews play Jews on-screen?
“In reality, it did matter that there were Jewish people in this film, but it didn’t feel necessary that everyone was Jewish, or that a Jewish person was necessarily playing a Jewish role,” Seligman said. “Like, Dianna Agron is Jewish in real life but she plays the WASP-iest character [in the film]. It felt important to me that I was making it with people who understood it. Neither Molly or Rachel are queer — but my producer and I are. So, if there was someone who was perfect for the role but they weren’t Jewish, I wanted myself to be open to that.”
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