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TIFF 2020 Review: Shiva Baby

Image Courtesy of TIFF

They say to write what you know, and Canadian filmmaker Emma Seligman did that just with her confident debut feature, the dark comedy Shiva Baby.  The writer-director in her press statement notes, “Having grown up in an insular Jewish community, I attended a number of shivas. They always amused me because, despite the fact that someone just died, people still ate bagels, complained, showed off their children, asked nosy questions and crossed personal boundaries.”  This is exactly what her main character Danielle faces upon her attendance at a shiva alongside her parents, the deceased even unknown to her at the time of her arrival, giving the impression that these gatherings are not an unusual part of her normal schedule.

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What is unusual however is that at this particular shiva, a couple of the guests are about to cause Danielle (Rachel Sennott) to unravel.  In amongst questions about her college major (Is it media? Gender business? What exactly is gender business?), comments about her weight (Look at that tiny waist! Is she anorexic?) and her parents trying to set her up with a job (Can’t she intern at your cousin’s publishing company?) she deftly avoids her ex-girlfriend Mya (Molly Gordon).  Confident and a law student, her mother and the other guests can’t stop gushing over Mya’s success, much to Danielle’s annoyance.  But if that wasn’t enough, she locks eyes with a familiar man across the room.  He happens to be her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferarri) and when news about him starts becoming evident Danielle really starts to panic.  All of their secrets are about to be out in the open.

At a trim 77 minute run time, there is no scene nor lines laid to waste here.  Seligman constructs a fair number of funny, gasp-worthy moments throughout the countless awkward encounters her main character experiences.  At the same time, she directs Shiva Baby in a claustrophobic frame appropriate for the pressure Danielle is facing.  Feeling at times like a stage production, at others a horror film, Seligman plagues Danielle with a deluge of suffocating questions, increasing her stress as the staccato, dissonant, increasingly tense score from Ariel Marx assists in turning up the anxiety.

Lead actress Rachel Sennott is up to the challenge of Danielle’s mounting panic as well as presenting her as a sympathetic character despite her numerous deceptions to those around her.  While Sennott shines brightest, the entire cast plays incredibly strong including a wonderful Polly Draper as Danielle’s meddling, yet sincere mother, Fred Melamed as her forgetful, bumbling father, and Dianna Agron (Glee), a recently converted, successful entrepreneur who is still looked at with disdain by the older women in the room.

The idea of a young woman discovering herself isn’t exactly new to film, but when that discovery is presented over the course of one day, amongst this cast of characters, Shiva Baby delivers something that feels original on-screen.  As such, it is a delightful watch from start to finish and hopefully the first of only many feature films from Emma Seligman.

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