Canadian filmmaker Emma Seligman says she’s grown up alongside “Shiva Baby” as the coming-of-age comedy catapulted from a school assignment into a festival-feted feature.
When she wrote the first draft of the script as a 21-year-old student at New York University, Seligman said she “vomited” out her anxieties onto the page as the free-fall of graduation loomed nearer.
At the time, much like the story’s protagonist, Seligman said she was fraught with insecurities as she came to realize that sexual validation isn’t a shortcut to emotional maturity, while still bristling against the coddling concerns of her Jewish parents.
Now 25 years old, Seligman said a lot has changed since she shepherded the 2018 short film into a debut feature that generated buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.
But Toronto-raised writer-director said her mission for “Shiva Baby” has stayed the same throughout the whirlwind trajectory leading up to the film’s streaming release on Friday.
“My goal is for other young women to feel seen and heard in their anxieties and insecurities and the conflicting pressures put upon them, and just be entertained by seeing that anxiety onscreen and know they’re not alone,” Seligman said in an interview last September.
“Shiva Baby” stars Rachel Sennott as soon-to-be college graduate Danielle, who is profiting off her sexual empowerment as a “sugar baby” to an older man, played by Danny Deferrari.
This arrangement goes awry when Danielle’s parents, played by Fred Melamed and Polly Draper, drag her to a shiva, a Jewish post-funeral gathering akin to a cross between a wake and a community potluck.
Among the mourners – none of whom seem too distraught about the deceased – are Danielle’s sugar daddy and his baby-toting wife, played by “Glee” alum Dianna Agron, as well as an ex-girlfriend.
Between trips to the bagel buffet and fending off kibitzers prodding about her future, Danielle clambers to contain this romantic quadrangle through a series of stress-inducing hijinks before her double life unravels.
Despite the film’s farcical tone, Seligman said she wanted the shiva to feel authentic to the ritualized conviviality of the functions she’s attended, in keeping with a recent wave of Jewish movies and television that strive for cultural specificity without leaning on slapstick or anti-Semitic tragedy.
“I feel like Joey Soloway and ‘Transparent’ really set the stage for (portrayals) of modern, not necessarily religious but cultural Jews in this nuanced way,” she said.
Seligman also drew from her own experience in depicting sugar babies, having seen her friends at NYU dabble in offering older men intimacy in exchange for cash or gifts.
Sugar babies sometimes come from privileged backgrounds, and for some, the incentive isn’t so much money as it is sexual power, said Seligman.
In “Shiva Baby,” Seligman sought to explore the implications of this brand of “transactional feminism,” while being careful to avoid stigmatizing sex work.
“It was tricky. I still don’t necessarily know if I got it right,” she said. “I had to walk the line between having another person judge (Danielle), but not having the film judge her itself.”
As “Shiva Baby” evolved into a professional production, Seligman said she gained a new perspective on its main character, but felt more removed from the self-doubts that motivated her.
At the same time, she was coming into her own as a director. “I had to have this moment … where I realized this is my movie. I’m in control.”
In some ways, Seligman said sharing “Shiva Baby” with audiences feels like closing the door on a chapter of her life.
“It’s very surreal,” she said. “Like every first feature, it took a lot out of me. And I’ll miss it so much.”
“Shiva Baby” will exclusively stream on TIFF Virtual Cinema for a week starting Friday. The film will be released in some theatres and video on demand on April 2.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press