TIFF 2020

Shiva Baby review – an instant teen comedy-horror classic

Emma Seligman’s debut relishes the embarrassment and neuroses of a Jewish funeral in this glorious pressure-cooker comedy

It takes a lot of chutzpah to make a film about a sugar baby running into her sugar daddy at a shiva while convincing an audience that it's okay to wince and laugh at the same time. The premise of Shiva Baby might feel like a riff on “a guy walks into a bar” joke, but the delivery is whip-smart – one of the most infectiously enjoyable coming-of-agers in years.

Emma Seligman’s portrait of a teen walking the tightrope of figuring stuff out and free falling without a clue focuses on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young woman telling the older guy she’s sleeping with that she’s going to law school, and telling her overbearing parents that she’s fine, she’s just working it all out. They’re not overbearing purely because they’re Jewish – but Seligman gleefully toys with these stereotypes and draws hyperreal caricatures of Danielle’s parents, aunts, uncles, neighbours and every single other person at the shiva (a Jewish funeral) who feels entitled to smother you until you suffocate.

“Feminism isn’t exactly a career,” Danielle’s father tells her, and the entirety of Shiva Baby keeps an eye on endless nuances of feminism without ever devolving into anything less than a razor-sharp comedy. Danielle doesn’t want to be “a girl boss kind of thing”; she tries to explain how being bisexual isn’t just a phase; she squirms as her mother tells her all she needs is “a little bit of lipstick” to find a man. Sennott performs this high-stakes embarrassment with glorious physicality, as much in her hunched shoulders as in eyes that freeze over in terror when she connects the dots and notices her sugar daddy across the room – as someone else’s actual daddy.

Teen stories have often relished the ambivalence of comedy-horror to capture the discomfort of those in-between years, but Shiva Baby uses its setting as a particularly efficient pressure cooker environment in which to push its characters to the brink without ever losing its sense of humour. Seligman crafts a microcosm that looks and sounds like a horror film in claustrophobic moments of panic, but doesn't hesitate to release the tension with a laugh when necessary.

Sennott thrives equally in a sea of over-talkers and opposite her over-achieving ex-girlfriend Maya (Booksmart’s excellent Molly Gordon), constantly tiptoeing around somebody’s secrets – too often, her own. Shiva Baby offers a slice of life from one unfortunate afternoon, where, really, these snafus might have little long-lasting impact. But under Seligman’s masterful eye, the awkward cacophony of family misfortunes will be sure to make anyone break out in a cold sweat – and happily so.

Shiva Baby was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2020.

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