A dark comedy in which death is just the start of a bad day

Shiva Baby, based on a short of the same name, soars on the strength of its lead performer

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Funerary rituals can bring out the worst in people. If you’re not already dead, you may start to wish you were.

That certainly seems to be the case for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), whose terrible horrible no good very bad day centres around a funeral for a distant relative. Somebody’s ex-wife’s sister, I think. This dark comedy makes it clear it’s not that important.

The title, Shiva Baby, references the Jewish mourning ritual of Shiva but it’s also a play on “sugar baby,” which is one of the hats that college student Danielle wears. In fact, it’s the first one we notice as she leaves her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) to attend the Shiva. Not exactly engaged, she asks her mom on arriving: “Who died?”

The rest of the film takes place in the confines of a house, as Danielle bounces between her overbearing parents, well-meaning but nosy relatives, and her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), who is attending law school. Danielle’s scholastic track is rather less defined. She claims to be studying “gender business” and also works as a babysitter.

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Writer/director Emma Seligman, expanding on her 2018 short of the same name, crafts a perfectly cringe-worthy 77 minutes of entertainment in Shiva Baby, with Danielle slowly going to pieces as the soundtrack – a horror-movie cacophony of strings – struggles to keep up. Of course Max also shows up, with his beautiful shiksa wife and one of the most annoying babies you’ll see on a screen this year.

The well timed shenanigans revolve around impulsive acts, misplaced unlocked phones, spilled coffee, unruly children, bathroom lineups and the way your parents can mortify you without even trying. “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps,” Danielle’s mom tells her in one of her many food-related outbursts, adding helpfully: “And not in a good way!”

A story like this lives or dies on the performance of its protagonist, and Sennott is fortunately up to the job. She’s had a lot of time to get into character, having also starred in the original short, which you can watch at shivababyshort.com. Think of that as a kind of extended trailer for the feature-length version and, if you like what you see, hop in. See you at the funeral!

Shiva Baby is available on demand through digital TIFF Bell Lightbox at digital.tiff.net, with other on-demand services to follow.

3.5 stars out of 5

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