TIFF review: Shiva Baby expands a short film into a chaotic comedy

Emma Seligman's debut feature stars Rachel Sennott as a young woman whose personal and professional lives collide at a Jewish wake

SHIVA BABY DISC D: Emma Seligman. U.S./Canada. 77 min. Sep 17, 12 pm, TBLB 1 . tiff.net Rating: NNN

Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is a study in managed chaos, dropping us into the life of a young New Yorker on the day her entire world falls apart. It’s a comedy, by the way.

Our hero’s name is Danielle, and she’s played by Rachel Sennott, reprising a character she created for writer/director Seligman in their 2018 short film of the same title. A grad student with a remarkably flexible field of study – it seems to shift every time she explains it to someone – Danielle is fidgety and adrift, sleeping with sugar daddies for cash she doesn’t seem to need. We meet her just as she wraps up a morning session with Max (Danny Deferrari), who seems to be more into her than she is into him. Or maybe that’s just an act she puts on.

The bulk of Danielle’s day, however, will be spent at a shiva in Brooklyn, where her family is gathering to mourn a loss. Her parents (Polly Draper, Fred Melamed), who’ve been supporting her while she’s in school, are hoping she’ll network a little and maybe leave the affair with an internship or a boyfriend; either is good, both would be better.

What her parents don’t know, and what Danielle is dreading, is that her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) will be there; what none of them knows is that Max will turn up too, along with the wife (Dianna Agron) he hadn’t mentioned to Danielle, and their new baby.

Seligman and Sennott mine a great deal of uncomfortable comedy from the collision of Danielle’s personal, professional and private worlds, and Shiva Baby is especially good at capturing its protagonist’s moment-by-moment recalibration of herself to suit whatever conversation she’s currently having. And as Maya, Gordon flavours the sardonic crackle she brought to supporting roles in Booksmart and The Broken Hearts Gallery with a streak of hurt, refusing to fully roll with Danielle’s situation even when it’d make things easier for everyone.

It’s a familiar riff on millennial anxiety and identity – and even at 77 minutes, we can feel Seligman labouring to stretch a short film into a feature – but Sennott and Gordon have chemistry to burn, and the world Seligman builds out around Danielle feels suffocatingly authentic. Even if it has the wrong kind of party sandwiches.

Read more TIFF reviews here.


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