The Shiva List movie review: A predictable journey of siblings letting go of old hurt while wearing masks throughout
Director Ashley Hills transports viewers into the long infested rivalry between the Schultz sisters who finally come to some sort of peace in the wake of their mother's passing.
Sibling rivalry is one thing, but sibling rivalry fueled by an overbearing mother who is seemingly biased towards the other child in the sole presence of one is something else. And along those very lines is the refreshingly 'dark' comedy, The Shiva List, based. The short film, written and directed by Ashley Hills, transports viewers into the long infested rivalry between the Schultz sisters who finally come to some sort of peace in the wake of their mother's passing.
The almost 10-minute short film allows viewers a sneak peek into the twisted brains of the two sisters - Julia (Christine Weatherup) and Emily Schultz (Lesley McKinnell) - and without a single word uttered, one can tell that the two just do not get along.
The two of them engage in a cookie baking experience as they imagine acting out their most base urges, and unsurprisingly, that happens to be hurting each other. But it's nothing psychotic or scaringly violent; just a regular flashback for anybody who's grown up with siblings and wanted to throw them off the ledge for being insufferably annoying.
Julia and Emily's montage of hurting each other comes and goes with something as simple as Julia imagining flinging lemons at Emily, while Emily imagines its Julia's head she's rubbing on the grater, instead of the lemons she's currently zesting. Julia also imagines flinging dishes at Emiily and the two engage in an active takedown of each other, but here's the catch - they all go back to their childhood versions while their imaginations run wild.
But what's more striking is how even after death, the overbearing mother's presence is still felt looming over them as the two try to work in 'harmony' in her kitchen. Julia sees their mother in Emily's blunt criticism and somewhat along similar lines, Emily does seem overly critical of Julie - the Ivy league graduate who is couldn't live up to her potential.
The Shiva List claims it is ultimately a movie about 'just letting go and embracing the mess' but it's quite a lot more than just that.
The theme is nothing that hasn't been explored before. The prodigal daughter that ends up divorced and broke, while the relative underdog ends up as the ideal godmoding one; the two have raging conflicts but in the end, extreme circumstances and emotional incidents help them resolve their differences.
It's been done and dusted, and so is the narrative, which begins with the conclusion and then takes viewers back to the journey of how things got their - keeping an air of mystery lingering. But what is there to look out for is the refreshing nuances that the actors bring to the table - both literally, and figuratively.
The story starts off with the two sisters following their mother's descriptive itinerary for her own Shiva, that she had penned down in a list well in advance it seems. It contains the requirements for the ceremony - from leon poppy seeds madeleines to white flowers and even a seating chart, and the two sisters are in charge of baking the madeleines.
It is right at that moment that just two sentences make it loud and clear what the relationship between the two sisters is like. What Julia calls their mother 'making an intstruction manual for her own Shiva', Emily considers as her 'making things easier' for them. And in that moment, the very predictable storyline of what could happen, gets established.
Emily is quite the self-righteous perfectionist - the kind that would rather do it all than letting somebooy else participate in the job, but purely because they have no faith in them. She is clearly the one struggling harder to let go, between the two sisters, as she tries to establish her ownership over a plastic cup!
The way she gets all passive aggressive about how their mother kept the cup only because it belonged to her and not Julia is mostly likely to make viewers be not so fond of her right from the start. But even at that, Lesley McKinnell has excelled in fooling the audience into thinking that maybe their mom was on Emily's side. Maybe the two were, in fact, a team marching along to bully Julia for her unsuccessful life.
McKinenell is effortlessly able to keep the facade up as Emily until the very last few minutes of the film, much like Christine Weatherup's portrayal of the apparent black sheep in the form of Julia. It's almost as if Yale University never happpened in her life, just like for Emily, being overshadowed by her sister's intitial accomplishments never happened.
If there's one thing the two actors have been able to do is keep the mask of unpredictability on for the longest time in what is a rather plain, predictable story. Like right until the very end of the fight between the two sisters, despite knowing that there's a happy ending coming up, viewers want poor old Julia to trump the condesceding Emily so hard.
For somebody watching the film as just an entertaining, slice of life watch, it might not occur that there could be more to Emily's evident resentment towards Julia, because this woman chides her for getting non-organic lemons for a dead person! But if looked in a little deeper, it's not Emily's resentment towards Julia; it's more of their mother's resentment towards her own self that she tries to overshadow Julia with now because she 'could never hold a candle' to her.
After the series of carricatures, the two seem to go through in their imagination - flinging things and hitting each other, trying to get it all out of their system - it is almost impossible to think that Emily secretly was jealous of their mother's appreciation for Julia. The former had been established as the posterchild for making it in the real world as she took care of their mother in her cancer battling days.
And then drops the truth bomb: Julia, despite her prestigious degree and getting published in the journal, couldn't afford to fly back home to be with their mother. Yet surprisingly, she was the one that was most preferred.
It all starts to come together like it does in most comedy dramas. At this point, calling it dark would be a bit of an overstatement because of its amply lit setting and the sheer white, squeaky clean kitchen, but there are a few dark spots here and there. The two sisters moving around and resolving buried issues of the past in that white expanse, wearing all black, is quite symbolic, one could say.
So obviously, when the madeleines burn in the oven because of their dragged out verbal duel, yet they somehow manage to enjoy them, it's clear that Emily and their mother weren't ganging up on Julia. It was the two of them - with their puzzle piece like imperfections, somehow fitting together as team, against the patronizing voice of their mother in the voicemail.
It's not sure if the two of them individually resented their mother because of the apparent bias she swore by, but at the very end, it's clear that their resentment towards each other was mostly because of their mother. And sprinkled in icing sugar dust, when they finally arrive at the Shiva, the mission has been accomplished. The bitterness between the two is gone.