Sometimes, you know in your bones a movie will be good just from its splashy premise. Other times, it sneaks up on you from an unexpected place, lodging itself slowly into your subconscious. Shiva Baby does both.
Emma Seligman’s debut feature, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night, definitely boasts a fizzy logline: A sugar baby runs into her sugar daddy while at a shiva with her family. But it’s also a much more introspective film than you’d guess from such a description, and delves deep into the insecurity and anxiety of finding yourself as a young woman. It’s a Jewish-coming-of age movie that feels new but also prematurely familiar, like the melodies of High Holiday prayers.
Rachel Sennot plays Danielle, a senior at NYU who moonlights as a sugar baby. It’s not that she desperately needs the money — her liberal Jewish parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), still pay her bills. Rather, Danielle’s in it for the thrill. When she’s with her daddies, she’s in control, sexually empowered, and desired. But in her own life, she’s lost. With vague ambitions to go into publishing, she stands out among the would-be lawyers, doctors, and high-powered girlbosses in her community. Her one meaningful romantic relationship, with her high-school sweetheart and best friend Maya (Molly Gordon) has been written off as “a phase.” All this repressed anxiety comes boiling to the surface when she’s summoned to a shiva for a family friend, only to find that Max (Danny Deferrari), one of the men she’s been seeing, is there, too. Not only does he know her parents, he’s married to one of the dreaded girlbosses (Dianna Agron). Oh, and they have a newborn.
“Shivas are so interesting because — for Reform Ashkenazi Jews, at least — they feel like any other family function,” Seligman told Refinery29 from her parents’ house in Toronto ahead of the film’s screening TIFF. “It’s just crossing boundaries, personal questions, bragging about children and grandchildren, networking, cruising, complaining, and oversharing. I always thought that it was funny that despite the fact that someone has died, the conversation topics stay the same.”
Seligman started working on the film — which started as a short, and then was expanded into a feature — as a film student at NYU. “A lot of my friends at NYU were sugar babies,”she said, “and I wanted to write something that took place in the Jewish community because I felt like I understood those characters really well and write dialogue for them.”
There’s an anxious, kinetic energy to the film that could only come from such an intrinsic understanding of this particular slice of Jewish life. In the wrong hands, Danielle’s mom’s constant fretting over food, her daughter’s clothes, her own appearance, her friends’ daughters careers, and her husband’s absent-mindedness, for example, could easily veer into anti-Semitic parody. But Seligman toes the line effortlessly, mining real experiences for comedy and emotion.
Casting was the real challenge. Not only did Seligman have to find actors willing to work on a tiny budget, they also had to feel authentic to the material. “We can't have a bunch of Gentiles in this movie,” she joked.
Sennot, who plays the lead, is not Jewish, a fact that continues to confound fans of her stand-up comedy. “She told me that like someone stopped her on the street and was like, I love it, you're doing Jewish comedy, but you're not Jewish,’ Seligman said. “And Rachel was like, ‘What does that mean?’ I said: I think they just mean you're anxious.”
Still, it does bring up an interesting question, and one that has come up recently in reference to shows like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: Should non-Jews play Jews on-screen?
“In reality, it did matter that there were Jewish people in this film, but it didn’t feel necessary that everyone was Jewish, or that a Jewish person was necessarily playing a Jewish role,” Seligman said. “Like, Dianna Agron is Jewish in real life but she plays the WASP-iest character [in the film]. It felt important to me that I was making it with people who understood it. Neither Molly or Rachel are queer — but my producer and I are. So, if there was someone who was perfect for the role but they weren’t Jewish, I wanted myself to be open to that.”
“Yentl was low-key a visual reference in this movie,” she said. “I talked a lot about the ‘Jew Glow,’ which is sort of this golden lighting that Transparent and Yentl use. It’s our secret.’
Despite Shiva Baby’s undeniable cultural specificity, there’s a universal quality to the themes it excavates, making it accessible and relatable. “As the movie evolved into the feature, I realized that it’s also about the moment as a young woman where you realize so much of your self-worth has been based on sexual validation,” Seligman said. “You're like, Do I have any power underneath this? If I take this away, do I actually have anything to stand on?”
Shiva Baby was originally set to debut at SXSW in March, before the festival was abruptly cancelled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, the film’s debut at TIFF has been out of the ordinary, as festivals struggle to adjust to a virtual/in-person hybrid. Like so many others, Seligman, who was based in New York, has moved back in with her parents in her Canadian hometown. But she’s optimistic about the future of film, and as part of the next generation of filmmakers, hopes to help push the industry in a more accessible direction.
“I’m so down for innovation and change, and the option for people to watch and enjoy movies from wherever they would like,” she said. “I love seeing movies in theatres, but I do think that pre-COVID, it was already becoming a luxury. I hope they don’t disappear, but I think having a variety of places you can enjoy things from can only help make film — and especially indie film — more accessible. There’s still a love and hunger for movies.”
Plus, she says, being home during this time has a silver lining. “Every time, I have a really good piece of news I’m with my parents, which is nice because they get to be so much more proud of me than I am.”