The first indie comedy set entirely at a shiva, the Jewish commemoration of the dead that, at least in North America, has evolved into a ritual that is half family reunion and half nosh fest, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is intermittently amusing. Like many movies of its ilk, Seligman’s flirts with edgy material but swiftly defuses its transgressive potential.
After debuting at SXSW during its swiftly constituted pandemic edition last spring, the film, which had its Canadian premiere this week at this year’s pared down Toronto International Film Festival, is being hailed as a “homecoming” for the Canadian-born Seligman.
Shiva Baby’s premise is blessedly simple. Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a moody bisexual college student who is floundering after breaking up with Maya (Molly Gordon), her law school-bound girlfriend, strives for “sexual empowerment” as well as a little fast cash, by becoming a part-time sex worker. The film opens with some brief out-of-focus friskiness and post-coital chatter with Max (Danny Deferrari), her older yuppie “sugar daddy.”
Seligman then schematically plunges her flustered protagonist into standard farcical terrain when she proceeds to attend a shiva for a family friend and promptly runs into both Max and Maya. At the outset of these ill-timed encounters, destined to end disastrously, the focus is more on Danielle’s loving, but stereotypically overbearing, parents. The predictability of their nagging concern is perhaps preordained by the fact that the chatty, unquestionably empathetic couple are played by veteran character actors Polly Draper and Fred Melamed (a Woody Allen regular), who too neatly embody many audiences’ images of urban Jewish neurotics. It also doesn’t help that Draper occasionally must deliver fairly tepid one-liners; a typical outburst has her rather non sequitur-ishly chiding her underweight daughter for looking like “Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps.”
Not surprisingly, the primary plot machinations involve awkward conflicts between Danielle and former flame Maya, who initially acts stand-offishly but actually pines for her old girlfriend, and Max who, accompanied by his gorgeous “shiksa” wife Kim (Dianna Agron), is compelled to play along with Danielle’s hastily formulated fib that she met him at the local temple.
Whenever Danielle’s anxiety level ramps up (a frequent event), angsty violins on the soundtrack reinforce the steadily mounting series of embarrassments she’s forced to deal with—a playful aural twitch that quickly becomes stale. When the farcical machinery reaches its zenith, a lost cell phone dooms her efforts to conceal her secret life from both Maya and Max’s increasingly suspicious wife. Despite the comic scaffolding, the movie occasionally shifts tone to explore, rather cryptically, Danielle’s oscillation between her rekindled affection for Molly and the more transactional pleasures of servicing the needy Max. A scene, not at all played for laughs, when Danielle performs fellatio on Max in the bathroom during the shiva, leaves the audience wondering if this is an honest outburst of passion or a mere reflex action.
It’s certainly admirable that Shiva Baby tries to lightheartedly explore quandaries surrounding ethnic and sexual identity, as well as the pros and cons of upscale prostitution. Unfortunately, sex work is little more than a facile narrative hook in Seligman’s film and it’s difficult to derive much mirth from its rote, if admittedly affectionate, portrait of tight-knit, bickering, Jewish families. Similar entanglements were treated more succinctly by Lena Dunham in some of the more successful episodes of Girls.