Rachel Sennott Comes of Age in Shiva Baby

The indie comedian redefining the hot-girl trope has had one hell of a year.

Shiva Baby, a new dark comedy from up-and-coming Canadian director Emma Seligman, is sure to be nothing less than gospel for a modern Lost Generation. The coming-of-age film follows just a few hours in the life of Danielle—a slightly-adrift student caught in the mire of parental expectations, old relationships, uncertain futures, and a moonlighting job as a sugar baby—as her errant threads become hopelessly entangled at a Jewish mourning ceremony. 

Seligman doesn’t shy away from frankly portraying the squirming awkwardness and mortifying petulance of early-20s confusion, and there are scenes so unflinching in their portrayal of conflict and angst that they almost hurt to watch. The characters in Shiva Baby are spared the quirky, candy-coloured kitsch that’s often imposed upon indie protagonists; on the contrary, Seligman’s characters and the actors that play them are mercifully, almost infuriatingly human. 

Shiva Baby is bitingly clever, uncomfortably honest, minimalist in its presentation and overwhelming in its emotion. But above all, the film is funny in the way that young adulthood itself is funny: just painful enough to be entirely comical; absurd in its masochism. 

Tying Shiva Baby together is the sardonic, relentlessly self-aware Rachel Sennott, a twenty-five-year-old comedian, actress, and professional hot girl who built her profile doing standup in Brooklyn’s rising alt-comedy scene. Through her brilliant Twitter presence, Sennott also became the poster girl for a new kind of social media star: her wry, coy brand of oversharing has turned her into a perfect parasocialite, which is a word I just invented for someone who gets famous because everyone who follows them is convinced they could be best friends.  

Basically, the girl next door trope is dead! The new archetype du jour is the girl in the freshman dorm next to yours who started wearing ironic evening gloves and reading Prozac Nation before everyone else, and Sennott does that better than anyone else in the game. She’s built a cult following of Brooklynites, cool-girls, and obsessive reply guys who all consider her the platonic ideal for Girls Who Are Both Funny And Hot. 

She may have started out as an indie darling, but over the many years spent working on the Shiva Baby project, Sennott’s star has risen exponentially. She first auditioned in her final year at NYU, back when Shiva was just a TIFF-bound short. After the film’s excellent reception, Toronto-born Seligman started expanding it into a full-length feature film.

 “I feel so lucky,” Sennott says,  Zooming in from her Los Angeles Airbnb. “It’s such a unique experience to be able to be so involved in the process. Emma wrote the feature-length film but she would send me drafts and we’d talk about the characters, so I feel like I really got to know the character and grow with her leading up to the time where the feature happened. So that was really special.”

Seligman is quickly establishing herself as one of Canada’s most impressive rising indie directors after the full-length Shiva Baby’s impressive 2020 SXSW debut. She and Sennott are best friends and artistic collaborators who are currently working on another “campy, comedic” film—a distinct departure from the dry, cutting wit that makes Shiva Baby shine. 

“I think the future is going to be all about camp,” she says. “People say it’s going to be like the roaring 20s after the pandemic, but I think it’s going to be like the ‘80s. Just huge, campy, all over the place. Oh my god, I’m just going to kiss every single one of my friends on the mouth and wear a full outfit every day. I want to throw a big birthday party for everybody, and I want to get a big huge cake and put everybody’s name on it. I’m going to do it all to the max.” 

Her career has exploded over the pandemic, so she’s got a lot to look forward to: She’s in L.A. right now working on a series of new film projects, including a starring role on the new ABC sitcom Call Your Mother. “I’m bicoastal now!!” She says, then adds: “Except being bicoastal in a pandemic is like, living in an Airbnb, and everything I own is in my parents’ basement.” 

“Nothing feels real because the most anything is is an email. It’s all super weird, but I’m so excited for the movie to come out! I also haven’t seen Emma [Seligman] for over a year in person, and I’m going to see her this month, and I feel like that will make everything feel so much more real, just being together.”

Those familiar with Sennott will notice more than a few similarities between her and her character. In the film, Danielle talks about doing standup and filming social media sketches, and struggles to reconcile her sexuality with her parents’ expectations. “Danielle basically goes through a coming of age in one day, and I felt like I was really going through a similar journey — but instead of it happening in a day, it was over the time that we shot the short to when we shot the feature. I was graduating, I felt really anxious about career stuff, I was feeling all this pressure and confusion from my family about my life… 

“And at the same time, I was starting standup, I was starting to tweet jokes about every time I was having sex, and everyone was just like, “What is going on??” And I felt like I was in a bunch of different relationships where it felt like power dynamics were at play. I really connected to those arcs in Danielle’s journey, it just took me longer to learn the lessons.” 

“But it all sort of worked out! I feel like I’ve been doing so many different things—tweeting, standup, writing, whatever—and they’re all moving forward now at the same time. I’m really happy. I just want to keep being able to do it all.”