The 45th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) got underway today in true 2020 style with a mix of virtual and socially distanced in-person screenings, remote video Q&As, press conferences and in-depth actor and filmmaker conversations. The first film I screened, from the comfort of my own sofa in New York, saw my TIFF-at-home get off to a strong start to put it mildly. Writer-director Emma Seligman’s feature debut Shiva Baby, based on her short film of the same name that played last year’s TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, is a masterclass in tension and comic timing with a nuanced, tour-de-force performance by Rachel Sennott at its centre surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Sennott plays Danielle a twentysomething bisexual Jewish college senior without a major; she’s studying something to do with media or feminism or gender or “gender business”. Even she doesn’t seem too sure exactly how to describe it when probed on the matter.
The movie opens with an out of focus but aurally explicit sexual encounter with an older man, Max (Danny Deferrari bringing charisma and sensitivity to the role), whom Danielle prompts for money after they climax. Max clarifies, rather unconvincingly, that he’s supporting a young female entrepreneur’s future with the cash, not paying for sex and mentions Danielle’s other “clients” whom he says she sees to help fund her education. We can tell from their rapport, an expensive looking gift and the dialogue that this is a regular hookup and the age gap is made strikingly clear when Danielle mimics Max’s voice repeating what he’s saying. But despite the unconventional dynamics there does seem to be a genuine affection between them and it’s touching, and a little sad, to see Max holding on tightly as they hug each other goodbye.
Danielle’s next stop, where we’ll spend the remainder of the film, is to accompany her overbearing parents Debbie and Joel (the pitch-perfect double act of Emmy-nominee Polly Draper and Independent Spirit Award-winner Fred Melamed) to sit shiva at the home of a family friend or relative. She’s missed the funeral service itself and in fact has no idea who has died, having to fumble her way through the first round of condolences. Awkward, and uncomfortable but things are only just getting started. One of the shiva guests is Danielle’s ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon, bringing a compelling brittle vulnerability) and clearly things didn’t end well between them. Although Debbie insists she’s “so open-minded” she instructs her daughter that there’s to be “no funny business” between the young women. Once Danielle sets foot inside the house she faces a continual barrage questions as she manoeuvres around the lox, cream cheese and bagels, about her relationship status, future study and employment plans, plus her recent weight loss (“you look like Gwyenth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way” her mother tells her). Think the intensity of that expertly choreographed sequence in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate from the moment Hoffman as Ben Braddock descends his parents staircase to being bestowed the single worded wisdom of ‘plastics’. Seligman captures that pressure of internal uncertainty, existential crisis even, met with the external expectation of assuredness and solid answers, breathtakingly extending it throughout the full length of the feature.
If things weren’t already uncomfortable enough for Danielle at the shiva, enter another unexpected guest, her sugar daddy Max. Followed by his beautiful and successful wife Kim (SAG-winning Glee star Dianna Agron, absolutely on fire in this role). And, their baby. To make matters worse Debbie, unaware of the relationship between them, insists on introducing her daughter to Max, literally dragging her by the wrists. It’s the anticipation in these kinds of moments that Shiva Baby excels in, making us squirm for Danielle while allowing us to release our own tension at witnessing it unfurl with plenty of opportunities to laugh. Seligman’s Outfest Grand Jury prize winning screenplay is deliciously detailed, continually feeding us with nuggets that will payoff down the line and likely enrich a second viewing. Maria Rusche’s handheld camera work and intimate close-ups on Danielle, along with Hanna Park’s quick-fire editing and composer Ariel Marx’s plucking strings all help to ramp up the sense of anxiety and agitation while getting us inside the young woman’s mind as she slowly begins to unravel. At turns hilarious, achingly awkward and beautifully poignant, Shiva Baby is filled with well-drawn instantly recognisable characters and more gripping than most thrillers. Unmissable.
By James Kleinmann
Shiva Baby played TIFF on September 10th and there will be a second screening on September 17th at 12pm.
The 45th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, taking place September 10th – 19th, is tailored to fit the moment, with physical screenings and drive-ins, digital screenings, virtual red carpets, press conferences, and industry talks. This year’s selection comprises a lineup of 50 new feature films, five programmes of short films, as well as interactive talks, film cast reunions, and Q&As with cast and filmmakers.