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Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle in Emma Seligman's Shiva Baby.Courtesy of TIFF

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  • Shiva Baby
  • Written and directed by Emma Seligman
  • Starring Rachel Sennott, Dianna Agron and Fred Melamed
  • Classification R; 77 minutes

Emma Seligman’s cheeky first feature, Shiva Baby, is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. First of all, it’s a cringe comedy, a satire of the genre that will amuse some viewers and leave others slinking out of the room with embarrassment for a protagonist trapped in a decidedly uncomfortable spot. And second, it’s a relentless parody of North American Jewish types that some will delightedly recognize and others will find so broad as to be offensive. Still, this is Seligman’s home turf – she grew up Jewish in Toronto and the film is set in a similar community in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighbourhood – and the send-up is mostly affectionate.

The film begins with a brief scene where it becomes apparent that young Danielle (Rachel Sennott) sleeps with her older lover (Danny Deferrari) for the cash. She’s a sugar baby, hence the punning title. She leaves the tryst and heads for a family shiva, the gathering that follows a Jewish funeral and is then repeated daily for a week. It’s as much an opportunity for the community to visit as it is a mourning ritual, a point Seligman amusingly makes when Danielle desperately hisses at her mother: “Who died?”

The rest of the film is set entirely at the shiva, and guess who is also in attendance? The married lover, of course, but also Danielle’s ex-girlfriend. The boasting bubbies and meddling mamas would be bad enough, but Danielle now has to wiggle around the many lies she is telling her parents, her lover and her community.

The premise is perhaps a bit thin to fill 77 minutes – the idea was originally explored in a short film that was Seligman’s film school project at New York University – but it works because Sennott’s Rachel is so interesting and so sympathetic. The character is self-serving and mendacious, yet you feel for her drifting soul as she uncertainly navigates the passage from studies to employment and from youth to adulthood. You really hope that neither her obnoxiously anxious parents nor her lover’s perfect wife figure out how she is making money these days as friends and relations gather around to query and prod.

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Dianna Agron stars as the perfectly blonde wife of Danielle's lover Max.Courtesy of TIFF

The perfect wife (Dianna Agron) is perfectly blonde, a shiksa in fact, and the proud mother of a new baby. Danielle’s mother describes the child as “freakishly pale” and lacking a nose, an ethnic slur that may take a moment to sink in but is actually one of Seligman’s best lines in a script that is often very clever.

The filmmaker does push the parody too far on occasion. There is a gratuitous scene around the buffet table as the camera closes in on members of the older generation stuffing their faces. Everybody has to eat, and few of us look good doing it, so the moment comes across as merely cruel. But for the most part, the smart comedy keeps coming with Sennott’s understated Danielle, a young woman of flat affect, deadpanning beautifully off the much broader characterizations of Polly Draper as her interfering mother and Fred Melamed as her doting father.

They mean well, and so does this film.

Shiva Baby is available on the digital TIFF Lightbox starting March 26, and will be available via other on-demand services including Apple TV/iTunes and Google Play starting April 2.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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