Review: ‘Shiva Baby’ (2021), starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed and Dianna Agron

August 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in “Shiva Baby” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

“Shiva Baby” (2021)

Directed by Emma Seligman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, the comedy/drama film “Shiva Baby” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bisexual college student, who secretly makes money as a sex worker for male clients, finds herself in uncomfortable situations when she, her parents, her ex-girlfriend, a sex customer and his wife all end up at the same post-funeral reception. 

Culture Audience: “Shiva Baby” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of sarcastic and well-acted movies about people who have secret lives.

Dianna Agron and Danny Deferrari in “Shiva Baby” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

“Shiva Baby” seamlessly blends hilarious comedy and sobering drama in this incisive story of a college student forced to reckon with secrets and lies during a tension-filled shiva reception. It’s a stellar feature film debut from writer/director Emma Seligman. The movie authentically represents American Jewish culture (almost every character in the movie is Jewish), which is a big part of the story, but the essential elements of the plot could have been about people in many other cultures.

Seligman is also one of the producers of “Shiva Baby,” which was selected to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury prizes were still given for the event. “Shiva Baby” went on to win the John Cassavetes Award at the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards, presented to the creative team of a film with a production budget of less than $500,000. (The John Cassavetes Award’s qualifying amount has since been changed to a movie production budget of less than $1 million.)

“Shiva Baby” is based on Seligman’s 2018 short film of the same name that she made when she was a student at New York University. Rachel Sennott, another NYU alum, stars in both “Shiva Baby” films, which get their title from the fact that the story takes place primarily at a shiva reception, and the protagonist is a college student who feels like her parents still treat her like a baby. Both movies were filmed on location in New York state.

In the “Shiva Baby” feature film, Sennott portrays bisexual Danielle, who’s in her early 20s and in her last year at an unnamed university in New York City. Danielle comes from a middle-class family (the movie never mentions how her parents make money), where she is the only child of her parents. Danielle’s life is revealed in bits and pieces in the movie until a portrait emerges of a deeply insecure woman who’s been lying to people about many things in her life. What “Shiva Baby” viewers first find out about Danielle isn’t necessarily the truth about her.

The movie’s opening scene shows Danielle and a man in his mid-to-late 30s having sex at his apartment in New York City. Viewers don’t find out until a little later in the movie that his name is Max Beckett (played by Danny Deferrari), and he’s also been keeping secrets. Max has been giving money to Danielle in a “sexual arrangement” relationship. Some people in this line of work might call Max a “sugar daddy,” but the reality is that he’s a sex customer.

Danielle has told Max that she needs the money to pay for her tuition at Columbia University Law School, where she says she is currently a student. Max seems a little jealous of other men whom Danielle might be seeing for the same type of arrangement. “How are you going to get through law school if you’re screwing around with these guys?” Max asks. Danielle doesn’t give a direct answer, but she makes sure to get the cash that she wants from Max before she leaves.

Danielle will soon have a lot more to deal with than nosy questions from Max when she attends a shiva reception later that day. Her parents call Danielle to remind her to attend the funeral of someone whom Danielle didn’t even know. The funeral is on Long Island, where her parents live, and Danielle has to ask her parents what the name is of the person who died. The deceased person has a very distant connection to Danielle’s family and is described as the sister of the second wife of someone’s uncle.

Danielle’s mother Debbie (played by Polly Draper) is very talkative, uptight and domineering. Danielle’s father Joel (played by Fred Melamed) is sensitive, gentle and easygoing. Debbie, who doesn’t like to talk about Danielle being bisexual, has been pressuring Danielle to find a nice Jewish guy to marry. Debbie wants to think Danielle’s bisexuality is just an “experimental” phase that has ended for Danielle.

Danielle skips the funeral but she meets up with her parents after the funeral at the shiva reception taking place at the middle-class house of a relative of the deceased person. Danielle is taken aback because one of the first people she sees is her ex-lover Maya (played by Molly Gordon), who has known Danielle since they were kids. Maya is also an only child of her parents. Danielle asks her parents, “Why is Maya here?” Debbie warns Danielle, “No funny business with Maya.”

The rest of the movie takes place at this reception, which becomes an increasingly volatile minefield of emotions, as the scandalous secrets of Danielle and other people are in danger of being exposed. Throughout “Shiva Baby,” Danielle is seen going to the buffet table to grab something to eat, or she finds some wine to gulp, which is the movie’s way of showing how Danielle uses food and alcohol as a way to cope with the stress she’s experiencing at this gathering.

Danielle’s issues with food are brought up in other ways that hint that she might have an eating disorder as part of her personal history. At this reception, multiple people (including Danielle’s mother) comment to Danielle about how much weight she has lost. It’s mentioned later in the movie that when she was younger, Danielle was considered to be “chubby,” but she lost a lot of weight during her college years. Debbie quips to Danielle about Danielle’s physical appearance: “You look like Gyneth Paltrow on food stamps—and not in a good way.”

Also at this reception are Maya’s mother Katherine (played by Glynis Bell), who is a very judgmental gossip. Just like Danielle’s mother Debbie, Katherine is aware of but chooses not to discuss the fact that Danielle and Maya used to be lovers. Katherine also seems to think that Maya will eventually settle down with a husband.

At this party, Danielle is asked several times by various people if she’s dating anyone and what her plans are after graduation. Danielle is honest about not currently being involved in a serious romance, but she gives people different or vague answers about her post-graduation plans. It should come as no surprise that Danielle and Maya have unresolved feelings for each other. Maya, who is a confident overachiever, is more likely than Danielle to be truthful about her feelings.

Even though Danielle wants to be independent and find a job on her own, her mother Debbie constantly asks people to help Danielle find a job after she graduates. It’s later revealed that Danielle’s parents are paying for all her expenses and have access to her bank account records. Danielle has been lying to her parents about the money she gets through sex work. She tells her parents that she gets the money from babysitting.

Maya isn’t the only guest whom Danielle is surprised to see at this reception. Danielle is even more shocked to see Max there. Max has a big secret that he’s been keeping from Danielle, but she finds out his secret at this gathering: Max is married and has an 18-month-old daughter. And he might not be the one paying for the apartment where Max and Danielle have been having their trysts. Danielle also finds out at this reception that Max used to work for her father years ago.

Max’s wife and daughter arrive later at the reception. Max’s wife Kim Beckett (played by Dianna Agron), an elegant blonde, is described by some of the reception’s gossips as a “shiksa” (a somewhat derogatory word for a non-Jewish woman), who’s a successful entrepreneur with multiple businesses and who earns a lot more money than Max. Kim works from home so that she can take care of daughter Rose (played by Edgar Harmanci), whose frequent crying in the movie is used as one of the things that causes Danielle to become more anxious.

Although “Shiva Baby” is mainly about Danielle’s worlds colliding at this shiva reception, Max and (to a certain extent) Maya have their own secrets and role playing that they do at this gathering. In a desperate bid to assert her sexual attractiveness, Danielle goes in a bathroom at the house, impulsively takes a topless photo of herself using her phone, and sends the photo to Max. You can imagine what might happen next.

“Shiva Baby” has a lot of dialogue that crackles with underlying resentments and hard feelings, as bitter rivalries and jealousies play out but are disguised by small talk that has a forced pleasantness. This dialogue wouldn’t work as well if “Shiva Baby” did not have these very talented cast members acting out the dialogue in realistic ways, especially in portraying how people often say one thing but are thinking the complete opposite. “Shiva Baby” composer Ariel Marx’s tension-infused music perfectly conveys in the movie how Danielle feels like she’s in a pressure cooker that could explode at any moment.

Sennott shines in this starring role as the moody and complex Danielle, who finds herself in way over her head when she sees the horrifying reality that her lies aren’t as harmless as she thinks they’ve been. Draper is also a standout in the cast and has some of the funniest lines of dialogue in “Shiva Baby” as Danielle’s overbearing but well-meaning mother. When Danielle accuses Debbie of not being able to see queerness (also known as “gaydar”), Debbie snaps in response: “Excuse me, I lived through New York in the ’80s. My gaydar is as strong as a bull!”

Agron and Gordon are especially good at portraying people who are in love with someone who’s fickle and a habitual liar, but these betrayed lovers are willing to risk getting hurt to have that person’s love. Deferrari is also quite skilfull in his performance of a cheating husband who’s terrified of being exposed and trying to keep his composure. Melamed’s Joel character is one of the few in the movie who does not put on airs. Joel is genuine about who he is, but he mistakenly thinks everyone is like that too, so he fails to see clues of deception that are all around him.

“Shiva Baby” has a few slapstick comedy moments that involve mishaps and accidents at the party. But the movie is laser-sharp in how it takes aim at people who put on fake appearances of having a great life when they might actually be very insecure, miserable and jealous of other people who are happy. “Shiva Baby” isn’t cynical about love. Rather, this very memorable movie is ultimately a poignant depiction of how true love can be found when people are willing to show their true selves to each other.

Utopia released “Shiva Baby” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on April 2, 2021. “Shiva Baby” became available on HBO, Max, Mubi, Blu-ray and DVD in July 2021. Utopia re-released “Shiva Baby” in select U.S. cinemas on August 4, 2023.

Review: ‘Bottoms’ (2023), starring Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber, Nicholas Galitzine, Dagmara Dominczyk and Marshawn Lynch

August 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott in “Bottoms” (Photo by Patti Perret/Orion Pictures)

“Bottoms” (2023)

Directed by Emma Seligman

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedic film “Bottoms” features an predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two lesbian best friends start an all-female fight club in their homophobic high school as a way to lose their virginities to cheerleaders. 

Culture Audience: “Bottoms” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and comedic movies where queer people are the central characters.

Ayo Edebiri, Rachel Sennott, Zamani Wilder, Summer Joy Campbell, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber and Virginia Tucker in “Bottoms” (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures)

“Bottoms” is a bawdy and occasionally bloody comedy that gets gleefully absurd in this story about two lesbian best friends who start an all-female fight club in their high school. The originality outshines some of the film’s clichés. Even people who might not like “Bottoms” can admit that there are many things in this movie that have never been said and done before in a teen-oriented comedy.

Directed by Emma Seligman (who co-wrote the “Bottoms” screenplay with “Bottoms” co-stars Rachel Sennott), “Bottoms” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. A distracting part of this movie is that the cast members portraying high schoolers look too old (early-to-mid 20s) to be in high school. It’s why all the movie’s raunchy dialogue isn’t as edgy as the “Bottoms” filmmakers probably thought it should be. However, because of the talented cast members, the delivery of this dialogue is entertaining, even if many parts of the movie require a huge suspension of disbelief, including the fact that all the cast members playing high schoolers are not really teenagers.

“Bottoms” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city but was actually filmed in Louisiana. The begins with lesbian best friends PJ (played by Sennott) and Josie (played by Ayo Edebiri) talking about sex. At this pont in time, PJ and Josie, who are both virgins, are students in their last year at Rockridge Falls High School. Their fantasies are to lose their virginities to the cheerleaders at the schools who are their biggest crushes.

PJ is hot for Brittany (played by Kaia Gerber), a tall beauty with a sarcastic attitude. (Gerber, who got her start as a model in real life, is the daughter of former supermodel Cindy Crawford.) Josie is infatuated with attractive Isabel (played by Havana Rose Liu), who is dating the school’s start football quarterback Jeff (played by ), a conceited, dimwitted pretty boy who is a chronic liar and cheater. Isabel and Brittany are best friends.

PJ is bossy and obnoxious, but she’s also hilarious and a generally loyal friend. Josie is more sensitive and thoughtful, but she’s also very insecure and plagued with self-doubt. In their conversations about losing their virginities, PJ is confident that it will happen to her before she graduates from high school. Josie thinks that if she has any chance of getting together with Isabel, it’ll probably be if they see each other at their 20-year high school reunion.

At school, PJ and Josie are outcasts because they’re lesbian and because people have heard that PJ and Josie both spent time in juvenile detention for violent crimes. Josie and PJ are often the targets of bigoted hate. Homophobic slurs are often spraypainted on their school lockers. Even the school’s sleazy leader Principal Meyers (played by Wayne Pére) doesn’t hide his homophobia.

There’s an incident where Jeff insults Josie, and she deliberately injures his leg while driving her car with Josie and Isabel as passengers. Principal Meyers calls Josie and PJ into his office and scolds them for injuring the school’s star football player. Rockridge Falls High School’s Vikings football team has been in a fierce rivalry for about 50 years with the Huntington High School Golden Ferrets. And there’s a big football game coming up between the Vikings and the Golden Ferrets

A story has been going around the school that a Rockridge Falls female student was attacked by a Hungtington male student. And so, when Principal Meyers tells PJ and Josie that they need to find a way to channel their “negative energy,” PJ comes up with the idea to start an all-female self-defense club at the school. (It’s really a fight club.) Principal Meyers says the club will be approved if PJ and Josie can find a teacher to be the sponsor/supervisor. PJ and Josie recruit their history teacher Mr. G (played by Marshawn Lynch), who has a hip-hop persona and is going through a divorce.

Josie is reluctant to go through with this fight club idea, but PJ convinces her by telling Josie that the fight club will be a way that they can find potential sex partners. Josie and PJ are thrilled when Isabel and Brittany end up joining the “self-defense club.” Other students are join the club, to varying results.

One of club members is Hazel Callahan (played by Ruby Cruz), who’s androgynous-looking and openly queer, is an even bigger misfit at the school than PJ and Josie, who try not to associate too closely with socially awkward Hazel. Also joining the club is Annie (played by Zamani Wilder), who is proud to be an African American member of the Republican Party. Other memorable supporting characters in “Bottoms” is Hazel’s frisky divorced mother Mrs. Callahan (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and Vikings football player Tim (played by Miles Fowler), who is Jeff’s smirky sidekick.

The plot for “Bottoms” is fairly simple and a little bit on the formulaic side. However, the movie’s snappy dialogue and great comedic chemistry between the cast members (especially between Sennott and Edibiri) are definitely not formulaic and make this movie shine. Sennott also starred in Seligman’s feature-film directorial debut “Shiva Baby” (written by Seligman), a comedy/drama that was released in 2021 and re-released in 2023. There’s a final showdown in “Bottoms” that gets very over-the-top in its slapstick comedy. Ultimately, “Bottoms” won’t be a massive breakout for any of its stars, but it’s the type of movie that will get a very devoted following who won’t get tired of watching it.

MGM’s Orion Pictures will release “Bottoms” in select U.S. cinemas on August 25, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on September 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies,’ starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders, Rachel Sennott, Lee Pace and Pete Davidson

August 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Chase Sui Wonders and Rachel Sennott in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (Photo by Erik Chakeen/A24)

“Bodies Bodies Bodies”

Directed by Halina Reijn 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in New York state, the horror film “Bodies Bodies Bodies” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and one biracial Asian) representing the wealthy, upper-midde-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: During a hurricane, seven people partying in a mansion decide to play a murder mystery game, but then some people at this party really end up getting killed.

Culture Audience: “Bodies Bodies Bodies” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of horror movies that mix raunchy comedy with a suspenseful mystery.

Lee Pace and Pete Davidson in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (Photo by Gwen Capistran/A24)

“Bodies Bodies Bodies” capably serves up suspense and social satire, despite a few plot holes and an overload of pop culture and slang that will inevitably make this horror movie look very dated. It’s a time capsule of Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) in their 20s, and all the technology that affects their relationships and perceptions of each other. In other words, it’s not a throwback to slasher flicks from the 20th century. This is a horror movie about people who don’t know what it’s like to live life without the Internet, for better or worse. Except for one person, all of the characters in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” are supposed to be in their early-to-mid 20s.

Directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The movie makes the most out of the relatively small number of people in the cast and the fact that “Bodies Bodies Bodies” primarily takes place in one location: a mansion in a remote, mountanous area somewhere in New York state. (“Bodies Bodies Bodies” was actually filmed in Chappaqua, New York.)

In many ways, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” follows the same formula of dozens of other horror movies where young people gather in an isolated area; indulge in sex, drugs and mind games; and are killed off, one by one. However, the movie’s snappy dialogue and a twist ending make “Bodies Bodies Bodies” slightly better than the average horror flick. It isn’t a movie where people are killed indiscriminately, because it’s shown exactly why each person was killed.

The opening scene of “Bodies Bodies Bodies” lets viewers know that this is a very queer-friendly movie, where the sexualities of the characters can be fluid, and if other people are uncomfortable about it, they don’t really care. The movie’s first scene is a close-up of new couple Sophie (played by Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (played by Maria Bakalova) passionately kissing each other. They also tell each other, “I love you.” It’s mentioned a little later in the movie that Sophie and Bee have been dating each other for the past six weeks.

Bee and Sophie have almost opposite personalities: Sophie is a risk-taking extrovert. Bee is a cautious introvert. Sophie and Bee are about to take a road trip to the aforementioned remote mansion to party with some of Sophie’s friends who were her schoolmates in high school. Sophie has known a few of these friends before they were teenagers. Bee is very nervous about this trip—and not because she will be meeting Sophie’s friends for the first time.

Bee has some other social anxieties. Bee is an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country and comes from a working-class background, while Sophie is an American whose family is rich. (Bakalova, the Oscar-nominated actress from 2020’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” is actually from Bulgaria.) Sophie is openly queer. However, Bee is also not completely “out of the closet” as a queer woman. Many of Bee’s family and friends don’t know yet that Bee is queer and dating Sophie.

Sophie’s got her own issues. Conversations in the movie reveal that Sophie is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. When she was a student at New York University, Sophie had at least one overdose and mental breakdown. She has also spent time in drug rehab and psychiatric facilities. It’s never mentioned if Sophie graduated from NYU, but it’s implied she probably dropped out of college because of her personal problems. Sophie doesn’t appear to have any life goals at the moment except to try to stay clean and sober and enjoy life as much as possible.

The mansion is owned by the parents of spoiled and obnoxious David (played by Pete Davidson), who is yet another stereotypical stoner that Davidson seems to play in his most recent movies. Before Sophie and Bee go to the mansion, Sophie tells Bee that David was Sophie’s “pre-school boyfriend, before I realized I was a raging dyke.” No one’s parents are seen in this movie, but it’s mentioned that all of Sophie’s childhood friends come from affluent families.

Because of his abrasive personality, David is someone who has friends who don’t really like him, but they tolerate him because he’s generous when it comes to partying and sharing some of his wealth. Just like Sophie, David doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with his life, and his family is rich enough to financially support him. David is the type of braggart who has to prove to everyone that whatever they can do, he can do better.

When Bee and Sophie arrive at the mansion, the small party is in full swing in and around the swimming pool. Sophie is warmly greeted by everyone, while Bee shyly offers a party gift: homemade zucchini bread. The other people at the party (except for Sophie) think this gift is very unsophisticated and old-fashioned, and they react with either rude haughtiness or amusement. Sophie tries to make Bee more comfortable, but Bee can immediately sense that she will have trouble fitting in with this group of bratty snobs.

The other people at the party are David’s insecure girlfriend Emma (played by Chase Sui Wonders), an actress who’s been in a relationship with David for the past six years; free-spirited but flaky Alice (played by Rachel Sennott), a podcast host who likes to wear glow sticks as jewelry; scruffily handsome and goofy Greg (played by Lee Pace), who is in his 40s and is having a fling with Alice; and brooding Jordan (played by Myha’la Herrold), who has unresolved romantic feelings for Sophie. Jordan is the only one in the group who is not part of a couple, so her “romantically unattached” status affects some of the tensions and jealousies that happen later in the story.

Some viewers might not like how long it takes for “Bodies Bodies Bodies” to actually get to any horror. The first third of the movie is really about showing the dynamics between these seven people when they’re partying and trying to prove to each other how “cool” they are. Alice met Greg on the dating app Tinder, and they’ve only known each other for less than a week. David is threatened by Greg’s physical attractiveness, so David attempts to demean Greg’s masculinity by trying to make Greg feel “old” and out-of-touch.

A hurricane quickly forces the party to go indoors, where there’s the inevitable electrical power outage, so that people can’t use their phones or WiFi service to communicate. No electricity also means that much of the movie is dark and shadowy, except for lights from candles, flashlights, cell phones or Alice’s ever-present glow sticks. Sophie notices that Jordan has been flirting with Bee. And so, as a distraction and in order to liven up the party, Sophie tells everyone that they should all play a game called Bodies Bodies Bodies.

Bodies Bodies Bodies is a murder mystery game, where slips of paper are distributed to all the players. The player who gets the paper slip marked with “x” is the designated murderer, who has to “kill” as many of the other players as possible. The potential victims can hide wherever they want to avoid being killed. Someone can win the game in one of two ways: By being the first potential victim to prove who the killer is, or by being the killer and getting away with all of the murders. And because “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is a horror movie, the killings turns out to be real.

A potential outlier in the story is a character named Max (played by Conner O’Malley), another friend in this clique, who was at the party the night before. However, no one really knows where Max is during the killings because he left the party the previous night, after getting into a fist fight with David. (It’s why David has a black eye.) The reasons for this altercation are later revealed in the movie. Max is not seen for most of the movie, but his name comes up multiple times in the increasingly paranoid and frantic conversations, and as the body count continues to pile up.

With a soundtrack that’s heavy on electronic dance music and hip-hop, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” wants to have a very “of the moment” vibe to convey a pulse-pounding nightclub of the early 2020s. But at this party, people’s pulses are pounding because they’re terrified that they’re trapped in this mansion with a serial killer on the loose. The hurricane outside won’t put off some people from trying to get away by car. But it should come as no surprise when “Bodies Bodies Bodies” has a horror movie cliché: a car that won’t start when people want it to start.

“Bodies Bodies Bodies,” which has good performances all around from the cast members, is at its best in revealing of some of the secrets and lies within this group of characters. The arguing can get a little tedious and annoying, but not so grating that it overtakes the movie’s horror angles. That’s because there’s enough comedy in the dialogue in the movie’s self-aware way of showing that these self-absorbed and sometimes-cruel characters mostly deserve to be mocked. Bee is the only one who seems to be immune to the group’s ridiculous ego posturing and whiny antics, but she’s no angel either.

Some of the plot developments in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” are a little on the implausible side. On the other hand, it is very believable that people in a panic can do a lot of things without thinking logically. People will either love or hate the ending of “Bodies Bodies Bodies.” Regardless of how viewers feel about how the movie ends, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” offers some sly commentary on some people’s preoccupation with creating lives and images on the Internet that are often quite different from reality. This preocupation can lead to misperceptions and manipulations that can be their own kinds of horror stories.

A24 released “Bodies Bodies Bodies” in select U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

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