Toronto Hidden Gem: 'Shiva Baby' Mines Sex Work for Comedic Discomfort

Shiva Baby Still - SXSW
SXSW

Emma Seligman's debut feature finds a young Jewish woman facing terror and humiliation when her sexual secrets are laid bare.

Canadian director Emma Seligman says a dalliance while in film school at New York University led her to writing and directing Shiva Baby, about a young bisexual woman juggling lox bagels, a sugar daddy, an ex-girlfriend and nagging parents during a frantic family shiva, or post-funeral service. The film screened online as part of TIFF's Bell Digital Cinema platform on Sept. 10. A physical screening will be held at Bell Lightbox on Sept. 17.

Shiva Baby originated as a short film during Seligman's last year at NYU, when at 21 years she was the same age as her dark comedy's main character, Danielle. Like her movie's protagonist, Seligman in real life was crippled by anxiety over her imminent graduation, her family, their expectations for her and her sexuality.

"I started to realize how insecure I felt for my future, and my sense of self-worth, which at the time was running on steam from sexual validation. And that was freaking me out," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. So, aiming to make a movie about what she knew, Seligman penned a script set in a Jewish community like her own in Toronto, and about sugar babies, or young women who walk a fine line between dating men for money and being sex workers.

"There can be a lot of power, of course, being a sex worker, a sugar baby, but oftentimes, at least for Danielle and for some of my friends I based her on, and myself, you think you're so powerful, and very quickly you realize you have no power at all," Seligman explains.

In Shiva Baby, Danielle, played by stand-up comic Rachel Sennott, attends a shiva with her parents, only to find that her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) has crashed the party. Seligman's resulting comedy of discomfort, with echoes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office, has Danielle experiencing, over the course of an afternoon, every insecurity and anxiety under the sun.

"I wanted to create something that other young women could relate to, in terms of their own family and sex life and romantic interests. And the best way to do that was to make the movie an anxiety ride of going through Danielle's downfall in a day," the director explains. Seligman finds dark comedy in part by holding her camera close on Danielle's stricken face so the audience has nowhere to avert its eyes as the young woman's every crisis unfolds.

"That was my goal, to allow no one to catch a break," she says. Seligman is more forgiving, however, towards Danielle as a sugar baby in search of sexual empowerment. "Sometimes being a sugar baby has more to do with a feeling of inadequacy or invalidation and wanting comfort and love and support that you're not getting from other relationships," she adds.

So Shiva Baby creates a complicated and transactional relationship between Danielle and her sugar daddy that, as Seligman puts it, gets "messier and blurrier" as the film draws to a surprise climax. The director is also equally ambiguous with Danielle's Jewish mother, played by Polly Draper, who appears as much nagging as nurturing.

"The dysfunctional Jewish mother is a stereotype and it's real and I love all the depictions of these characters in movies," Seligman says affectionally. "But I wanted to be able to also show someone that was very loving and very supportive because that's what my mom is. Above all of our family's dysfunction, she's there for me."