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'Shiva Baby' is one of the most honest movies about millennial anxiety

The social panic of a generation put on film

'Shiva Baby' is one of the most honest movies about millennial anxiety  The social panic of a generation put on film

Shiva Baby, the debut film by twenty-five-year-old director Emma Seligman, has only recently become available on MUBI. The film was received with great success overseas for its ability to tell, through the individual story of its protagonist, a series of generational issues related to the anxiety of millennials, which three years ago the WSJ defined the «Most Anxious Generation». The story follows Danielle, a bisexual college student who keeps working as a sugar baby for a man she met on the Internet. One day, Danielle has to go with her family to a Jewish funeral vigil (called shiva) and will find herself forced to face the women of the family, who make her feel under scrutiny with their questions about her future; then her own sexual confusion, when she meets her ex-girlfriend and, finally, her own sugar daddy who shows up at the ceremony with his wife and child in tow without knowing that Danielle is there. The story of the film follows the development of the afternoon, in a tragicomic escalation of anxiety and nervousness on the part of Danielle, who tries to untangle herself between her own problems and the insistent snooping of her family.

A portrait of millennial anxiety

The main merit of the film is to tell with an incredibly sincere expressionism the state of anxiety that defines the generation of millennials through the sentimental and familiar dynamics of the protagonist. The film is extremely talky, the squabble of Danielle's family members is continuous and irritating – an effect that is increased by the soundtrack, closer to that of a psychological thriller than that of a comedy. Danielle's anxiety is the anxiety of all millennials who have found themselves having to explain their unconventional studies to an old aunt who storms them with questions, the anxiety of those who possess a fluid sexuality but do not know how to explain it to a family for which there are only marriages and children, the anxiety of any young person who is not taken seriously by a boomer who simply does not have a mind open enough. 

Seligman's direction has an incredible mastery of orchestrating these crescendos of claustrophobia and cringe but the real star of the film is the script, capable of touching with great ease all the great generational themes that concern millennials and their problems. There are the economic difficulties of the new generation, its fluid and confusing relationship with sex, the difficulties in conforming to the expectations of a generation that has lived in an era of clear and precise certainties, the Peter Pan syndrome, the lack of desire to have children and start a family and, finally, the conflict between personal freedom and social conformism. Throughout the film, Danielle is set against a host of middle-aged men and women who force her to explain or justify her every decision – even when she herself frankly has no idea what she is doing or why. 

The new trope of the “messy millennial”

Shiva Baby is one of the beast example of what journalist Aspen Nelson defined the messy millennial trope, that is, a new type of character of comedy (especially American) that surpassed the image that the old sitcoms and films painted young adults. It is no coincidence that the premise of the film has been compared by many to a sitcom with its almost theatrical cast of characters moving in the same house. The protagonists of series such as Friends, Sex and the City or Will & Grace had very clear paths in their lives: precise and always successful careers, fixed and often very spacious flats in the center of New York, love lives punctuated by more or less lasting relationships, little or no doubt about their status, their future or their sexuality. Characters like those of Girls, Master of None, Broad City, Love or You're the Worst experience completely new conflicts compared to those seen in the comedy we are used to: work is not always a continuous and safe ascent, sex itself stops being problematic but the situations caused by sex start to become so, the conflict no longer moves in the Central Perk but also takes place through the digital world and social media. 

What makes Shiva Baby a film made by millenials for millennials, though, is the fact that we don't think in absolute terms, without providing decisive answers or defining good guys and bad guys. An element that has all the flavor of relativism of this generation. Danielle is a victim of herself and her behaviors, as well as the women of the family but her sex work is never judged. Her mother is not intolerant but just worried and a little hung up. Danielle's ex-girlfriend loves her, but she likes to provoke. His sugar daddy is a cheater but he really loves both his wife and his lover. Everyone is, after all, only human and this is what the final scene emphasizes: we have all our merits and defects and above all many appearances to maintain but the community around us is the only thing we can count on.