Shiva Baby Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

While attending a Jewish funeral service with her overbearing parents a college student runs unexpectedly into her secret sugar daddy with increasingly awkward consequences.

The Good

Shiva Baby bursts with neurotic energy and a raw nervous wit. The film’s simple premise unfolds gradually with the irresistibly captivating appeal of a surprisingly well catered car crash. It’s a cringe worthy delight to be vicariously thrust into small intimate rooms with a constant array of shamelessly pushy parents, overachieving friends and judgmental relatives

Rachel Sennott is by turns alluring and deeply awkward as Danielle, the young woman struggling to hold it together while being slowly crushed under the constant weight of well-intentioned meddling criticism. She manages to maintain audience’s sympathy for her character, despite her own painfully obvious flaws. It quickly becomes clear that her seemingly listless selfishness is largely a response to the neurotic pressure cooker she inhabits. Giving her bad decisions and their painfully amusing consequences a little more of a sympathetic edge. It’s easier to tolerate anyone’s vices and immature behaviour when you’ve spent time in the company of their persistently overbearing family.

There have been many films that explore the uniquely painful uncertainty of people struggling to find their place in the world as college draws to a close and the daunting prospect of the real world and inescapable adulthood beckons. Perhaps The Graduate is the best known example of this and most clearly established just how much sexual identity and misadventure forms a part of this experience. Shiva Baby continues that tradition but with a uniquely Jewish twist.

In a very literal sense Sennott’s character Danielle is being confronted by her past, in the provocative form of her flirty former best friend Maya, and the embarrassing uncertainty of her own future. Watching her flail helplessly between the two and reach misguidedly for validation and affection is compelling viewing.

Molly Gordon is a an excellent fit for Maya, providing both the perfect confident overachieving counterpoint to Danielle and inject fresh dimension of awkwardness with the pairs simmering sexual history. It adds even more nervous tension to scenes already crammed with it by the unexpected and inescapable encounter with her shameless sugar daddy, played Danny Deferrari.

Likewise Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are sensationally effective as Danielle’s parents, embodying the very best and worst clichés Polly Draper perhaps deserves most praise for treading a fine line to make Danielle’s fast talking and relentless mother by turns both shamelessly demanding and genuinely caring. That careful balance between tactless outspokenness and actual best intentions is perhaps the most easily identifiable spirit of quintessentially Jewish comedy.

The Bad

For some people Rachel Sennott’s character might be just a little too much the architect of her own misfortune. The more unsavoury and inescapably selfish aspects of her character might push more squeamish audiences away. Likewise the film’s constant barrage of social anxiety and awkward situations might not appeal as much to those with less of a natural appetite for witnessing the misfortunes of others. There’s a rich vein of comedy to be mined from such situations but it’s also genuinely uncomfortable viewing.

The Ugly Truth

Shiva Baby is a rampantly sensuous and anxious slice of filmmaking that throws audiences into a rollercoaster of social awkwardness and uniquely Jewish culture. Provocative performances and tight scripting make it a compelling ride.

Review by Russell Nelson

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