It would be easy to dismiss Danielle (Rachel Sennott) as a wildly self-absorbed and irresponsible college student. Out of the nest, half-settled on a “frivolous” major (Gender Studies), she’s somehow convinced her attentively overbearing parents that she’s making ends meet by dipping her toes into various odd jobs, including babysitting. The truth is far simpler: she uses an app to advertise herself as a Sugar Baby, and has a healthy clientele of Sugar Daddies (older men willing to pay for her time with expensive gifts) in her contacts.
Danielle carries herself like a self-assured businesswoman, but there are fissures in the facade. Director Emma Seligman asks: what happens when a coltish, freshly-minted adult – who doesn’t actually believe what’s she’s attempting to project – attends the funeral service of a family acquaintance? The quick answer is “mayhem”; the complex one requires us to consider her past and present circumstances before judging what the filmmakers could’ve otherwise titled Well Well Well, if it Isn’t the Consequences of my Own Actions.
There’s no way that Danielle could’ve known that Max (Danny Deferrari), the Sugar Daddy with whom she’d just had transactional, disconnected sex, would show up at the same event. Thus, she’d no reason to remove the bracelet he’d gifted to her. Perhaps a more experienced woman would’ve recognized that such high-quality jewelry would invite questions requiring plausible answers.
Complicating this tinderbox situation is the presence of Maya (Molly Gordon), Danielle’s childhood best friend turned prom date, turned ex-lover. They orbit each other with a tense mutual attraction that manifests itself in the form of passive-aggressive barbs. Maya just finished law school; Danielle tells her “Daddies” she’s studying to become a lawyer, embarrassed by the truth of her academic choices. It’s just one more little white lie in an accumulating snowball.
Individual oversights that would usually go unnoticed become magnified. As Danielle dodges prying questions from nosy mourners the unthinkable happens: Max’s impossibly elegant wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), arrives with their sick 8 month-old infant in tow. She’s the personification of Danielle’s shakily perpetuated fiction; an entrepreneur who juggles it all, nary a hair out of place.
The complex relationships between the women in Shiva Baby are crucial. In a film written and directed by a man, Kim could’ve easily been a caricature. Instead, she’s treated with empathy: agony flits across her perfect face and leaves as quickly. How idyllic can her life be, when her deadbeat, cheating husband fritters away the fortune made possible by the sweat on her brow? Danielle’s mother (Polly Draper) knows her deeply, and senses that something isn’t quite right; she prods, but with patience and empathy. Maya runs the gamut: we see her wary, flirtatious, jealous, angry, guarded, and compassionate.
After discovering Danielle’s secret, Maya asks how she can do sex work. Danielle’s answer is disarmingly honest: “It felt nice to have power and be appreciated”. What appears on the surface to be an entirely preventable avalanche of bad decisions is overcompensation for an awkward, unpopular childhood that made Danielle feel isolated, like a spectator to her own destiny. Maya grasps her hand in solidarity; the future may be unknowable, but we need not navigate it alone.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Shiva Baby is currently without US distribution.