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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: ‘Shiva Baby’ is an excellent study in suspense

May 3, 2021
2 min read time

A sugar daddy, his sugar baby, family politics, a newborn, and an ex-girlfriend walk into a shiva... That’s the loose premise of Shiva Baby; a thrill-ride of uncomfortable delight that started as a short film by writer-director Emily Seligman, available here on Vimeo. Seligman turned the short into a low-budget SXSW crowd-pleaser with one very tight script. So, how did she pull off the hyper-contained anxiety-inducing, much-talked-about indie? 

Your five screenwriting takeaways from Seligman's fine example:

1. Family Pressure.  Danielle (played by the excellent angst-ridden Rachel Sennott) is clearly in a state of existential collegiate crisis. She’s trying to get a media degree that she’s examining “through a feminist lens.” Her overbearing Jewish parents (who still constantly check her bank account) clearly have no idea what Danielle is passionate about—and at this juncture in time, Danielle might not either. That doesn’t stop them from parading her around at a shiva (for a distant family friend, but that’s irrelevant) in attempts to set her up with the rabbi, get a job from anyone who might offer, and constantly show off her new svelte figure. Many at the shiva gossip about how Danielle is now too skinny and may have an eating disorder. Not exactly appropriate shiva conversation, but when you’re still among the world of the living, anything goes, and all poor Danielle can do is dodge the comments. 

2. The Unexpected Ex.  Danielle’s ex-girlfriend (her mother insists they were just experimenting) makes an appearance early on, and it’s clear the two have much unfinished business. The ex in question (Maya) is played by Molly Gordon and she can still wilt Danielle with a glance. She’s also got her shit together: She’s going to go to law school—a prized matter of conversation at the shiva, as you can imagine. Not to mention, plenty of people keep getting Danielle and Maya mixed up when the two seemingly would just like to get mixed up with each other literally, again. It’s a lovely will-they/won’t-they that drives a lot of the film. 

3. The Sugar Baby Who Is Also A Baby Daddy.  The plot thickens when Danielle’s sugar daddy—she met him on the app for just that—arrives with his wife and fairly newborn baby. The audience meets Danielle in a torrid position with Max, said sugar daddy (played by Danny Deferrari) at the opening of the film. The rest of the movie is a power struggle between them as Danielle seems constantly on the edge of exposing his identity for spite, release, or maybe just to get the hell out of the shiva in the first place. 

4. An Incredible Score.  The music in the film is at times overwhelming, but so is the shiva itself. It makes the movie feel much larger than it is and even seems to push the characters into horror territory when Danielle becomes covered in fluids, starts bleeding, and feels faint. It’s a reminder of just how much every element of filmmaking matters, and proves the haunting work of composer Ariel Marx yet again.

5. Subversion of Expectations.  This shiva feels very ordinary. It’s ordinary people gathering with traditional shiva food (there’s an argument over how to say arugula)—yet nothing that goes down at the shiva is ordinary at all. Particularly when you are not yet 21 and everything in life feels beyond consequential. Seligman has a way of keeping the audience constantly on edge because her lead is on the edge herself. It’s also a reminder of the power of secrets and how a film can be driven on just that alone. 

Final Takeaway: Shiva Baby is an indie definitely worth the watch as even the New York Times is currently abuzz about Seligman’s talent. It’s an absolute masterclass in tension and viewers won’t be sad they came to this memorial gathering; not in the least.


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