A captivating blend of razor sharp and perceptive wit and nail biting suspense, writer-director Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby understands something that most comedies don’t: being embarrassed and overwhelmed in a situation one can’t escape from is equal parts hilarious and terrifying.
Danielle (a wonderful, star making performance from Rachel Sennott) is a struggling “academic” in her early twenties being dragged to a shiva for her “uncle’s second wife’s sister” by her well meaning, but meddling and clueless parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper, in a bit of perfect casting). What was initially supposed to be a quick in-and-out appearance to appease her parents turns into something considerably more awkward when two guests Danielle doesn’t want to see arrive at the shiva. Maya (Molly Gordon) is the ex-girlfriend Danielle unceremoniously dumped and ignored when she went back to school, and Max (Danny Defarrari) is the older sugar daddy she’s been hooking up with for money.
Seligman piles on mounting secrets and lies throughout Shiva Baby to great effect. As Max’s true nature comes to light, Danielle continues to dig a deeper hole for herself than the one reserved for the deceased. Instead of playing every moment of Danielle’s misfortune and deliberate misdirection for laughs or sarcastic malevolence, Seligman often turns the inherent wackiness of Shiva Baby down to a slow boil, spicing things up insead with laser focused drama, sexual commentary, and the pitfalls of becoming an adult. Danielle might be her own worst enemy, but she’s far from the most loathsome or least relatable character in Seligman’s film.
The jokes about modern sexuality and Jewish traditions are exceptionally funny and sarcastically smart throughout Shiva Baby, but viewers will probably be taken aback by the film’s increasingly claustrophobic tone and intensity (aided nicely by the expert decision to use a score that sounds straight out of a horror movie). It’s one hell of a debut feature, and a film that will make viewers interested to see where the writer-director and her leading female stars go from here.
Shiva Baby screens as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, September 17, 2020 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. As always, when attending a film in person, take all proper precautions. Practice social distancing, wear a mask, and stay home if you feel unwell. All online screenings through Bell Digital Cinema are currently sold out.