TIFF20: Shiva Baby

Danielle is a good-ish Jewish daughter, so when her parents ask her to attend a funeral, she takes time out of her busy life as a college senior to do it. Is she on time? She is not. Does she know who died? Does it matter? She’s there, she’s putting in face time, fielding questions about job prospects and marriage prospects, putting up with frank evaluations of her body, her choices, her independence, her future, her past. It’s a lot, and she hasn’t even had a bagel yet. Has she been eating, by the way? The ones who aren’t grilling her are gossiping about her. Has she been a good daughter? A good student? A good girl?

It sounds painful, and it is, but I haven’t even told you the worst part. The worst part is that Danielle (Rachel Sennott) has an ex in the room, a sort of ex anyway, a secret ex. It’s family friend Maya (Molly Gordon), the girl next door that Danielle grew up with, went to prom with, went all the way with. And while their status is never mentioned directly by anyone in the room, not even by the young women themselves, there are enough furtive glances and averted gazes to indicate that their history isn’t as secret as they think. BUT, there’s an even bigger secret in the room. Danielle’s current beau is also there. With his wife and baby. Well, beau might be a bit of a strong word for Max (Danny Deferrari). I believe the website they use calls his position “sugar daddy,” though if he is surprised to find out that Danielle is a) not in law school and b) supported generously by her parents, she’s equally surprised that the cash he gives her after their encounters is apparently drawn from his wife’s account, and the bracelet he gave her this morning matches the one on his wife’s wrist.

Writer-director Emma Seligman has rigged this funeral like a powder keg ready to blow, and knowing the whole thing is always just one disclosure away from implosion gives the scene an electric crackle. This is the kind of comedy that’s only funny in the car on the way home, and that’s as long as you weren’t one of the main players. At the time, it’s painful and awkward, and yet no one can quite resist poking the bear. Seligman delivers a pretty big bear and a lot of eager pokers.

The ensemble cast, including Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, and Dianna Agron, is exceptionally good at driving this thing to its inevitable tipping point. And though Danielle’s lies outnumber her truths and her antics relegate the deceased to the forgotten, Sennott makes sure she is still drawn with a certain sympathy. Burdens and expectations are piled upon her like so much potato salad on her dumpy paper plate, and well-meaning though they may be (and I’m dubious about that), the barrage of questions are prying, invasive, and unwelcome. But they must be borne. All part of the price of being a good Jewish daughter, Seligman’s script implies, but it also implies that’s an achievement all but impossible.

Shiva Baby is a cringey comedy about running into your sugar daddy at a family funeral, but there’s a universality to it that rings true for many of us. When Selgman writes about family, she writes about obligation, comfort, ritual, values, pride, disappointment, and perhaps most of all, steadfastness. Which in fact is not so universal after all. Danielle may endure quite a bit at the hands of her family, but at the end of the day, blood is thicker than coffee stains. They’ve got her back, and that’s more than many of us can say.

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