Shiva Baby thrives as the kind of festival-circuit dramedy that overcomes the genre’s twee stigma thanks to its surprising restraint and refinement.
North American film festivals are always stuffed full of movies that look like Shiva Baby — droll indie dramedies, built around topical, high concept premises and shot in an unassuming manner reminiscent of contemporary TV aesthetics. It’s pretty easy to be skeptical of such content, as so often these movies aren’t much more than acting reels for untested comedians, or a writer angling for a series. So yes, on paper Shiva Baby does appear to be made from this dubious mold, but it blessedly dodges the worst clichés of such films, guided by writer/director Emma Seligman’s distinctive, assured voice.
Expanded from Seligman’s 2018 short of the same name, Shiva Baby sets out to juggle an impressive number of ideas and interpersonal conflicts over the course of its 77-minute runtime. Most of this is spent at a shiva attended by Danielle (Rachel Sennott) and her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) who, while well-intentioned and affectionate, also fail to recognize their latent conservatism and tendency to infantilize. This tension is strained to tense extremes when it turns out Danielle’s ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), and her current (married) sugar daddy are sitting the very same shiva as her and her parents, which brings about dueling conflicts. On one side, Danielle is warding off her mother’s homophobic needling (she insists on repeated assurances that Danielle and Maya’s relationship was just some “experimenting”), and on the other, she’s attempting to maintain the ruse that she and her sugar daddy are only passingly familiar with one another. Arguably, these dynamics could create enough narrative momentum to keep a feature film afloat, but Shiva Baby’s screenplay makes the risky choice of piling on additional conflicts (the sugar daddy’s wife and baby show up, professional envy between Maya and Danielle, constant body shaming from distant relatives). A less refined screenplay might get overwhelmed trying to give proper attention to each angle of this scenario and collapse under its own weight, but Seligman has thoroughly mapped out her narrative. Expertly timed out and never contrived, it plays out like a very dry screwball comedy.
The film’s closing moments are perhaps the closest Shiva Baby comes to getting too wacky (the cut to credits comes just as its crossing the line), and even at its slim runtime, the film eventually starts to feel like its looping back on itself. But these flaws never overtake the film’s appealing honesty. Sennott’s performance also lines up with Seligman’s vision nicely; probably most famous as a Twitter-based comedian, Sennott underplays this role just right, fashioning herself into a conduit for the audience’s anxiety and exasperation. The qualities of her performance reflect Shiva Baby’s strengths in macro: an insistence on staying away from easy choices and sensationalism (even more essential when you consider that this film is one of only a couple films at TIFF directed by an LGBTQ identifying person). Shiva Baby proves Seligman and Sennott to be adept storytellers in their own savvy, parallel ways, precisely the sort of artists that festivals should be fostering.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.