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TIFF 2020: Shiva Baby

Love, sex, food, and mourning — or, what it means to find your authenticity
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A whirlwind shiva spirals out of control in Seligman's feature. COURTESY OF TIFF
A whirlwind shiva spirals out of control in Seligman's feature. COURTESY OF TIFF

What do you get when you combine a directionless college student, a traditional ceremonial gathering, and a complex relationship or two?

Some might call it a waking nightmare. Others, just another uneventful day. As for everybody else, they just call it Shiva Baby.

Emma Seligman’s New York University thesis takes on a life of its own in this expanded, cinematic production. Immediately, we’re thrust — quite literally — into the action: the film opens on a shot of our protagonist, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), finishing up a session with her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari).

Through quips of clever dialogue and a series of artful wide shots, two things are made explicitly clear. One, our protagonist Dani is trying to save money to afford to go to law school. And two, either Max and Dani really, really like to give extended hugs, or they have feelings for one another.

Cut to the titular shiva — a ceremonial gathering of mourning — where we meet the overbearing, yet concerned Debbie (Polly Draper) and her ditzy, scatterbrained husband Joel (Fred Melamed). They are Dani’s parents and the catalysts for the dominos that are about to topple.

It’s bad enough that Dani has not the faintest clue who she is meant to be mourning at the shiva.

The subsequent appearance of her ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), adds a little more turmoil and pain.

But when Max shows up, revealing that not only that he used to work for Dani’s father, but that he’s also married — with a baby, no less — things begin to spiral out of control.

On a superficial level, Shiva Baby is the story of how, during one fateful shiva, Dani’s life completely falls apart. Yet at its heart, this film is an examination of the human condition: what constitutes a strong, healthy relationship, and how to present your most authentic self in a world that constantly tries to tell you that what you’re doing is not enough.

These themes culminate halfway through the film, when Dani glances at her strong-willed mother and murmurs something along the lines of: I know I’m not the daughter you expected. But answer me — do you think I’m a disappointment?

In this moment, Dani transforms from a cynical, childish, attention-seeking character into a young woman who may be emotionally struggling but has heart. The nail-biting, tension-inducing violins cut out, the camera zooms in on our lead, and suddenly, the movie becomes less of an amusing romp down the rabbit hole of destruction and more of a social commentary — grounded in reality, touching upon everybody’s dreams, desires, and confusions.

Though Dani is clearly the star of the show, one of the film’s greatest strengths lies in the phenomenal acting of the secondary ensemble cast. From Max, with his eyes ever-flitting between Dani and his wife, to Maya, with her warm smile, sharp tongue, and not-so-subtle flirtations, every character is portrayed with commitment, skill, and poise. The supporting cast brings light and life to Dani’s despair, grounding the film in humility and warmth.

Admittedly, you’re left with a few questions by the time the credits roll. The final scene leaves off on a pseudo-cliffhanger, precariously teetering between sufficient resolution and unadulterated conflict.

Yet this moment is pulled off with grace and perfection. The lead-up is comedy at its greatest, leaving viewers with one final laugh, and the ambiguity of the final scene — creating an ending that’s open to viewer interpretation — is both unconventional and brilliant.

Quirky, relevant, and unflinchingly real, Shiva Baby is a film that’s sure to bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face — likely at the same time. It’s quick. It’s sharp. It’s character-driven, and it’s fun.

This might be the first time you’ve heard of director Emma Seligman, but it definitely won’t be the last.