#TIFF20: “SHIVA BABY”
Review by Amanda Gilmore for Mr. Will Wong
Perennial undergrad student Dani (Rachel Sennot) is at a crossroads in her life. She doesn’t know what to do with her career and she’s in a money-exchange relationship with an older man Max (Danny Deferrari). When her parents haul her to a Shiva (a Jewish mourning event), her past, present and future converge in one house. Surprisingly, she encounters her ex Maya (Molly Gordon) and current flame Max. At once, she is hounded by questions from extended family and friends at the affair. As the pressure surmounts, Dani’s anxiety reaches a breaking point.
It’s hard to believe Shiva Baby is a first-time Feature. Writer-Director Emma Seligman navigates her story with the precision and confidence of a seasoned Filmmaker. She has a clear vision and executes it masterfully. Her Script includes heavy themes of inner-turmoil laced with Comedy, making can make this tightrope to walk. Seligman manages to balance herself steadily.
Another feat Seligman achieves is giving this Dramedy a very distinct feel. She borrows a bit from the Horror genre to heighten Dani’s anxiety. The disquieting Score by Ariel Marx could easily have been used in a Horror film, yet it triumphs in this heartfelt Coming-of-Age story. Not only does it parallel the trepidation of the protagonist, but instills great tension in its audience.
There are moments where Seligman’s whip-smart dialogue is delivered by multiple characters in succession, overpowering us as we immerse ourselves in Dani’s building unease. As a result, we feel both a mix of empathy and anxiousness. Cinematographer Maria Rusche adds to the escalating tension with close-up shots that induce a claustrophobic feeling. This is further aided by the stellar, concise editing by Hanna Park, who for example, makes quick jumps between dialogue, close-up shots and the ear-piercing cries of a baby.
At the heart of Shiva Baby is its endearingly-flawed characters. Seligman manages to get us invested in each character because she gives the same detailed attention to her one-line characters as she does Dani. Our protragonist is placed in a series of cringe-worthy situations which many of us relate to. Refreshingly, she’s never pigeon-holed and is perfectly brought to life by the outstanding performance from Sennot.
As the lead, Sennot commands the screen and encapsulates the essence of Dani – her anxiety, her secretiveness and her fire. However wrong Dani’s actions are, we sympathize with her because Sennot makes it hard not to. She also excels at understanding the power-dynamics within each scene in Seligman’s Script. Sennot is surrounded by an immensely-talented Ensemble. Gordon is delightful as the still-in-love ex. Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are superb as Dani’s supportive, yet overbearing parents. And Dianna Agron is just captivating as a woman slowly learning of her husband’s deceit.
Overall, Shiva Baby is a hilarious, heartfelt Film about the surmounting pressures of family expectations and growing up. At its core are its stellar performances and expert filmmaking all around.
Shiva Baby screens at TIFF:
Thu, Sep 10
Online at Bell Digital Cinema
Streaming in Canada Available from:
Thu, Sep 17
TIFF Bell Lightbox