Of the many offspring of The Graduate, few films approach the original’s perfect blend of eager but anxious anticipation regarding the future and post-adolescent tendencies toward solipsistic self-pity. Or, for that matter, the quality of the comedy and the level of craftsmanship. Mike Nichols directed the 1967 masterpiece with such skill that filmmakers still drink from the well more than half a century on, seeking to replicate some of that bottled lightning. Shiva Baby, Emma Seligman’s feature debut as writer and director, doesn’t have a budget equivalent to The Graduate, and nearly all of it takes place in a single location and close to real time, but the new filmmaker works wonders within these limitations.
As spiritual heir to The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock and his soul-crushing indecisiveness and lack of direction and purpose, Rachel Sennott’s Danielle is a roiling cauldron of contradictions. And although Sennott is neither Jewish nor bisexual, her commitment to the character results in what deserves to be a star-making performance. Danielle shares many other traits with Dustin Hoffman’s Ben. Both are smart, charismatic, horny, insecure, funny, cruel, petty and self-centered. And both navigate difficult and potentially explosive sexual minefields with older, married partners.
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The double application of the movie’s title refers to Danielle and to the child of her “sugar daddy” Max (Danny Deferrari), who unexpectedly shows up at the post-funeral gathering of the mutual acquaintance Danielle never manages to identify. Max’s baby, along with wife Kim (Dianna Agron), provide plenty of tension as the story unfolds. But before all that awkwardness, viewers learn in the opening scene that the adulterous Max offers Danielle cash (and a lovely bracelet that works as a mini MacGuffin) in exchange for sex. Danielle’s parents, who still cover her living expenses, believe that she earns money babysitting.
Shiva Baby is most certainly not a movie for those who get clammy and start to sweat at secondhand embarrassment. Seligman brilliantly modulates the rhythms of the social gathering, placing viewers in position to vicariously share one humiliation after another as Danielle is continuously infantilized by her mom and dad (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). The original short version of Shiva Baby was Seligman’s NYU thesis film. A comparison of the two demonstrates several strong choices made by the writer-director to expand the narrative world. Sugar, a 30-minute comedy series based on the Shiva Baby universe, is being developed by Seligman for HBO.
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The short, which can be found online, showcases Seligman’s already sharp staging and timing chops. It stands on its own as a self-contained gem of the form. The Shiva Baby feature adds a rewarding subplot involving longtime close friend/one-time girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon). Maya’s bullshit detector is finely calibrated, and she knows something weird is up with Danielle and aims to figure it out, stacking another layer of stress on the increasingly harried protagonist. Seligman nails the multiple ways in which we perform identities tailored to the specific requirements of any given audience — especially the ones made up of our closest relatives. Which facet of the protean Danielle represents the “real” or “authentic” person?
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.