Shiva is a period of mourning observed in Judaism, traditionally lasting for a week. During that time, the mourners remain at home and observe certain customs intended to help them process the experience of loss, while friends and family come to visit and offer comfort. In reality, therefore, observing shiva is necessarily a social process and a time for people to catch up with each other, and, as during a high school class reunion, some people will be primarily concerned with making comparisons and keeping score.
The social aspect of a shiva is the focus of Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, starring Rachel Sennott as Danielle, an about-to-graduate college student who isn’t living the kind of life her parents want to brag about. In the first scene, we see her having noisy sex with what is later revealed to be a married man, Max (Danny Deferrari); an exchange of cash makes it clear this is entirely a transactional relationship. In the next scene, she’s being coached by her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) about how to answer questions about how to answer the inevitable questions about her future plans (the nonexistent job interviews she has lined up and such). Of course Max shows up at the shiva, as does his shiksa (non-Jewish) wife (Dianna Agron) and their adorable blonde infant. And so does Maya (Molly Gordon), who might be Rachel’s old flame, and who’s made the acceptable life choice of attending law school.
Most of Shiva Baby is shot in the home where the shiva is taking place, which is not only an economical choice for a first feature, but also emphasizes how claustrophobic Rachel finds the experience. No matter where she turns or what she does, people are judging her and sharing their comments, often quite wittily (Seligman also wrote the screenplay). The secondary characters are mostly familiar types, and you might find them familiar and endearing or you might find them stereotypical and predictable. The same goes for Sennott’s character, whom you might find insightful, particularly if you were or are the kind of person who doesn’t always do what your elders expect, or you might just think she’s a privileged, self-centered brat. I will offer this bit of advice—don’t give up too soon, because it gets more interesting and less stereotypical as things start to get real. I do have one question, however—doesn’t anyone use password protection on their phones these days?
I can only publish a capsule review of Eytan Fox’s latest feature, Sublet, a pleasant, if predictable, drama about the relationship that develops between a middle-aged travel writer from the United States and a young Israeli film student. The writer, Michael (John Benjamin Hickey), is in Tel Aviv to research an article about the city, and has arranged to sublet an apartment in Tel Aviv from the student, Tomer (Niv Nissim). When it turns out that Tomer has no place to stay, Michael offers to let him sleep on the couch in exchange for Tomer acting as his unofficial tour guide. Sublet is about the interactions between two gay men of different ages and backgrounds, of course, but it’s also a real love letter to Tel Aviv and to modern secular Jewish life. | Sarah Boslaugh
NewFest 2020 runs from Oct. 16 to Oct. 27, and most films in the festival are available for remote screening. Both single tickets ($12, $10 for members) and all-access festival passes ($95) are available. Further information, including details on the films and other events, is available from the festival web site.