TIFF ’20 — The Trying Art of Seeking (and Dodging) Arrangements in ‘Shiva Baby’

A still from 'Shiva Baby'. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is standing in a room at a Shiva. She is shown in close-up, shes in her 20s with dark eyebrows and brown curly hair pulled into a ponytail. She wears hoop earrings, a white shirt and black blazer, she holds what looks like a bagel in her hand, she looks angry.
TIFF

Realistic portraits of Gen Z are few and far between, given the tendency for writers’ rooms to be twice to thrice the age of the people they’re depicting. In their effort to capture today’s youth culture—one of media saturation, political disillusionment, and hypersexuality—they can fail to understand the intricacies of growing up amidst these very factors. Empathy is swapped out for something marketable and achingly self-aware, and false notions of “true love” are revered with startling inexactitude. So for young adults to be able to bask in the (typically theatre, currently laptop) screen glow of something new and yet entirely familiar, with characters whose emotions and mannerisms make perfect sense, is a treat. Enter Shiva Baby

Writer-director Emma Seligman’s debut feature, Shiva Baby, follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young woman nearing her college graduation, who unwittingly encounters her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), and her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), at a shiva. Just when it seemed her waking nightmare couldn’t possibly worsen, Max’s wife (Dianna Agron, blonde and beautiful) walks in with a baby—their baby. All the while, Danielle’s parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) are blissfully unaware of her sexual escapades, cracking jokes about her lifestyle and urging her to eat more. It’s a premise as absurd as the generation it encapsulates, and I mean that in the best way possible. 

The film quickly adopts a musicality akin to drama-thriller hybrids like Black Swan or Krisha. Ariel Marx’s suitably overwhelming score plays atop a spate of personal attacks, with Danielle spinning in and out of bathrooms and kitchen corners to avoid the maelstrom of questions (“What are your plans after college?”), concerns (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps!”), and, inevitably, scandals awaiting her. The flurried, overlapping dialogue feels entirely naturalistic, but is skillfully choreographed to pull together an anxiety-inducing look at young womanhood. Seligman understands the thriller in the same way that she does the rom-com; both rely on moments—eruptions or punchlines—to propel their stories forward, all while calculatedly breaking tension. 

A still from 'Shiva Baby'. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) stands sandwiched between her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper), looking displeased.
TIFF

This tension is sustained and broken with great success by leading lady, Rachel Sennott, who epitomises the restlessness of coming of age in today’s sociopolitical climate. Her performance is initially defined by shrugs, sighs, and visible discomfort, but then morphs into something much more intimate in her tête-à-têtes with Molly Gordon’s Maya. The two share a bond that goes beyond their romantic history of prom dates and arguments, cemented by Sennott and Gordon’s stellar chemistry. Understanding the idiosyncratic language of young women is an art in itself, one that Seligman has clearly both perfected and lived. Her uncompromising wit is on full-display here, where for every Gen Z joke, there is an equalising moment of sobering self-reflection.  

Shiva Baby also offers up a refreshingly empathetic glance into sex work, portaying it as a nuanced, personal decision driven by something other than its usual amalgam of daddy issues and trauma. Danielle doesn’t need the money, she wants it. But what sugaring actually offers her is decidedly more valuable than capital: a sense of control sorely lacking in other respects of her life. She can’t seem to lock down a major; her interests are trivialised incessantly; her mother thinks lipstick will solve the boyfriend-sized hole in her personal life, and that her bisexuality can be chalked up to mere experimentation. The desire for control spawns a power struggle between Danielle and Max. She tosses subtle jabs his way; point: Danielle. He makes her feel small; point: Max. 

Despite its characteristic chaos, Shiva Baby neatly juggles queer identity, power dynamics, sex work, religion, and the ethos of family all within a 77 minute runtime. It’s remarkably effective at submerging you in Danielle’s hellscape without prodding you to pity or idealise her. And while grounded in today’s distinctive cultural onset of girl bosses, lukewarm relationships, and sex delivered to your doorstep, Shiva Baby’s takeaways about femininity and power are sure to hold up even when it becomes a period piece. Genuine, passionate portrayals of Gen Z may be sparse, but with ones like this in circulation, I can’t complain. 

Shiva Baby screened at the virtual edition of Toronto International Film Festival on September 10th and 17th

by Saffron Maeve

Saffron Maeve (she/her) is a Toronto-based film writer studying English and Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. She habitually cries to film scores and aspires to one day make it into the Criterion Closet. Her favourite films include The Goonies, Bringing Up Baby, The Kid, and After Hours. You can find her on Twitter (@saffronmaeve).

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