TIFF 2020: Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, US/Canada)

By Adam Nayman

The title character of Canadian director Emma Seligman’s feature debut is technically the 18-month-old blonde moppet sired by affluent nebbish Max (Danny Deferrari) and his shiksa-goddess wife Kim (Dianna Agron), a miniature avatar of assimilation yelping up a storm amidst a company of black-clad mourners. Symbolically, though, the title refers to tousled, directionless Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a premature crank whose vague aspirations to work in “gender business” are subsidized by a pair of father figures: her mortifying, prosperous-schlamazel dad (the inevitable Fred Melamed) and Max, whose clandestine sugar-daddy status is threatening to tip over into genuine, possessive affection. When Max unexpectedly shows up to Danielle’s fraught family function, the possibility that their mercenary, bad-faith arrangement will be exposed threatens chaos and catharsis in equal measure. Shiva Baby’s claustrophobic, one-location set-up feels indebted to the Starz sitcom Party Down (which somehow never did a shiva episode), while Seligman’s cozily caustic chosen-people humour feels stuck between satire and schtick. The film’s Jewishness is thorough without being revelatory, and the late drift into psychodrama (complete with invasive close-ups and buzzy, abstract sound design) is a bit ambitious for what’s basically an extended short. But funny is funny, and Sennott, whose stone face is offset by avid eyes and framed by ringlets that dangle and droop in sync with her moods, is more or less hilarious as a distaff failson trying to navigate murky social waters without drowning in situational self-loathing, aimlessly circling the buffet until she can make a getaway to nowhere.