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#TIFF20 Review: Shiva Baby (Discovery)

September 11, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A breakout film for both first time feature director Emma Seligman and star Rachel Sennott, Shiva Baby is an engaging comedy set at a Jewish funeral that finds humour in this unlikely setting. The film’s main character is Danielle (Sennott), a perpetual college student who gets dragged by her doting but slightly overbearing parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) to the funeral service for an old family friend.

But things turn awkward when Dani’s ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) shows up, followed by the older man she is sleeping with, Max (Danny Deferrari), who is incidentally also paying to have sex with her. As secrets are threatened to be revealed, and various older relatives offer unsolicited advice while badgering her about education, employment and boyfriends, Dani becomes increasingly frazzled as she loses control of the situation.

Expanding her own short film of the same name to feature length, Seligman keeps Shiva Baby moving at a quick clip, and does a fine job of handling the shifting power dynamics between characters throughout the film. In a nice turn of events, the Toronto-raised Seligman was actually one of the early members of the TIFF Next Wave committee, so it’s fitting that her first feature is now playing at the festival. And it’s featured in the TIFF Next Wave sidebar, no less.

The film was shot at a house in Brooklyn, and cinematographer Maria Rusche impressively navigates the tight spaces afforded by this enclosed setting. Through close ups and insert shots, Rusche heightens the claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in a living room with a bunch of people, which is further elevated through the quick cuts employed by editor Hanna A. Park. Composer Ariel Marx adds a horror-inspired musical score to the film, which helps drive home the worsening anxiety that Danielle is experiencing.

The whole film unfolds over a single day, and almost entirely in the same house, and it’s the perfect setting for a tightly wound screwball comedy. As Dani goes through the nerve-wracking experience of having everything around her come apart at the seams, Sennott finds the humour in her character’s unravelling. The young comic actor impressively carries the film with her increasingly anxious performance, bouncing off of the solid ensemble cast around her.

Seligman has cited the Coen Brothers as an influence on the film, and there are a few echoes of A Serious Man in Shiva Baby. The film works as an awkward cringe comedy, but it also serves as a slightly deeper exploration of Jewish families and sexual identity, a mix that is handled quite well through Seligman’s sharply written script. At an efficient 77 minutes long, Shiva Baby doesn’t overstay its welcome, and really makes the most of its running time. This is a tight and enjoyable little film that suggests more great things to come from Seligman and Sennott.

Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby

Public Screenings:

Thursday, September 10th – 8:00 PM at Bell Digital Cinema (Online for 24 Hours)

Thursday, September 17th – 12:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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