It is apropos that Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is screening in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Discovery platform. It is a discovery, in every sense: the discovery of a new comic voice behind the camera, the discovery of a note-perfect star in lead actor Rachel Sennott, and the discovery of a viewing experience that is at once hilarious, awkward, uncomfortable, and unforgettable. Shiva Baby is a blast of energy and from its first moment to its last Seligman finds the right balance. There is genuine suspense, if not horror; the score, by Ariel Marx, could just as easily fit a summer camp slasher flick. But the greatest feeling for the audience––after discomfort––is excitement.
In Seligman’s adaptation of her short film of the same name, Sennott plays Danielle, a young Jewish woman and student at Columbia who is rudderless. As the film opens, she is sleeping with Max (Danny Deferrari), an older man who pledges to support her education. It is unclear whether her heart is truly in it; her reminder to Max for money is certainly telling. The film cuts to Danielle greeting her mother and father outside a shiva, and we learn much in these few minutes. Her tough but loving mother (Polly Draper) and befuddled father (A Serious Man’s iconic Fred Melamed) attempt to rehearse her on what to tell questioning family members about her post-college plans. This is wise, as the questions come fast and furious; as one shiva attendee puts it, “Does Danielle want to go to law school, or grad school?”
Things grow infinitely more precarious inside. The crowd includes Danielle’s ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), and it is clear this relationship has raised a few eyebrows. Danielle’s mother cautions her against “funny business with Maya” prior to entry. Soon, Max appears, and he is not alone. This appearance sends the already caustic Danielle into overdrive. What follows is barely controlled chaos, provocative selfies, and a deeply upset infant. For the audience, this means legit laughter but also constant cringing. Yet we are so connected with Danielle that her errors––of which there are many––are tremendously worrying. Case in point: After the aforementioned selfie, Danielle leaves her phone in the bathroom, an action which may inspire audience members to literally shout at the screen.
Somehow, Danielle’s experiences go from bad to worse, and through it all, Sennott performs with wounded grace. This is an exceptional performance, right down to her wide-eyed glances at Max and his companions, as well as the always-watching Maya. It all culminates in a wonderfully awkward van ride that brings to mind The Daytrippers but has a charm all its own. There is never a misstep from Sennott and the rest of the cast, and Seligman’s screenplay is full of surprise and dramatic verve.
There is, indeed, only one criticism here, and it has nothing to do with the film itself. While watching Shiva Baby it is impossible not to think what a riotous experience it would have been to watch the film with an audience. In any event, perhaps for a festival like TIFF20––especially in its hybrid form––a film like Shiva Baby is a necessity. It is a reminder that the most resonant festival films are often non-star-driven fare like this one. And Seligman demonstrates there is no greater dramatic minefield than that of the family get-together. The plight of Danielle during this seemingly unending day (for her) is one viewers won’t soon forget.
Shiva Baby premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.