It’s been almost exactly six months since the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to everyone’s plans for the year—I know this for a fact, because I have a series of emails historians are welcome to dig through if the minutia of canceled SXSW reservations are of any use to future generations’ understanding of the crisis. This was to be my first SXSW, and I was disappointed to miss it, although I’m obligated to note that it’s nothing compared to the upheaval of filmmakers displaced by the event. (I don’t have a budget to make back, for one.) But in the end, sometimes things do work out, as scrolling through the TIFF virtual festival platform produced a number of titles that were on my list for SXSW. I greeted them like old friends.
This is to be expected for TIFF, which rounds up the best of the winter and spring festivals and adds them to its lineup even when there aren’t pandemic-related scarcity issues to contend with. (Those won’t truly be an issue until it’s time for next year’s festivals, whose hopefuls, with a few brazen exceptions, didn’t got into production this year as planned.) But with the scuttling of SXSW, Tribeca, and most of the other spring and summer fests, this year’s Toronto—always a “festival of festivals”—is even more of a Noah’s Ark than usual.
One film that deserves to rise above the flood waters is Shiva Baby (Grade: B+), which is less of a coming-of-age story than a, “I came of age, now what?” story. Although Emma Seligman’s feature debut was originally slated to premiere at SXSW, TIFF is home turf for Seligman, who wrote, directed, and co-produced the feature from her short of the same name. That short screened last year as part of the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, but Seligman also has the unique bragging rights of having served on the TIFF Sprockets kids’ festival jury when she was 9. And all that cinematic nurturing has served her well, as Shiva Baby is an assured and impressively choreographed debut that gets funnier with every new complication.
Seligman specializes in sex-positive cringe, in which the secondhand embarrassment comes less from the sexual situations themselves than the collision between the heroine and the more conservative society that surrounds her. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is cut from the same NYC slacker cloth as the heroines of Broad City, although her preferred escape from her own perceived shortcomings is sex, not weed. Specifically, this gender studies major is embroiled in a sugar-daddy relationship with an older man, not because she has to—her parents pay her rent and tuition—but because she’s bored. (Or maybe it’s a feminist statement? She doesn’t even seem to know.)
Opening with an unconvincing orgasm and building to a silent car ride that’s both painfully awkward and kind of sweet, Shiva Baby follows Danielle as she leaves her sugar daddy’s loft and meets up with her doting, clueless parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), for a shiva, or Jewish post-funeral reception. Things start out awkward enough as Danielle is passed from overbearing relation to overbearing relation, all of whom want to know: Is she seeing anyone? She is, of course, but it’s not the kind of thing one discusses with one’s great-aunt, especially not at a funeral. That’s awkward enough, but Shiva Baby escalates to nuclear levels of discomfort when in walks Max (Danny Deferrari), the sugar daddy in question, with his wife and baby in tow. Suffice to say, they failed to discuss their plans for the day while having sex on the couch that morning.
Seligman choreographs the results with confidence and no small amount of wit, as Danielle navigates what’s best described as a combination of a dance sequence from a classic Hollywood musical and a chase scene from a slasher movie. (The latter is reinforced by Ariel Marx’s score, positively Harry Manfredini-esque at times.) The writing is sharp, laying out the complex histories of and relationships between the many characters—Booksmart’s Molly Gordon is a highlight as Danielle’s aggressive, embittered high-school sweetheart—in naturalistic but surprising ways. Sennott keeps the material grounded with plenty of eye-rolling post-millennial ennui, for a worthy entry into the growing canon of female-driven, proudly Jewish sex comedies.
Like Shiva Baby, Beans (Grade: B-) would have been a natural fit for TIFF no matter what. This debut feature from writer-director Tracey Deer illuminates a specifically French-Canadian and Native coming-of-age story that’s heavy handed in some ways and delicate in others. The latter aspects are largely owed to 13-year-old Mohawk actress Kiawentiio, who stars as the title character. The story is based on Deer’s own childhood memories of the “Oka Crisis,” a three-month standoff in 1990 where two Mohawk communities blocked the roads leading onto tribal land, including a cemetery, that the Quebec regional government was planning to turn into a golf course. It’s difficult for an American to say if this is a well-known event in Canada, but it was this writer’s first exposure to it. And the virulence of the racism Deer weaves into her story—including a real-life event where Bean, her mother, and her little sister have rocks and slurs hurled at them—is painful to watch.
Through Kiawentiio, Deer uses this pain to show how exposure to hate can affect a young person’s life, as Beans transforms from a sweet, trusting child to a sullen, rebellious teenager over the course of those three months. There are aspects of the story that are typical coming-of-age fare—a first drink, a first kiss—and aspects that are unique to a time and place in history. Without the latter, Beans would be memorable mostly for Kiawentiio’s intuitive performance as the title character, which shows a vulnerability that’s remarkable for an actor her age. But the projection of universal experiences onto this very specific backdrop has a poignancy all its own. It’s when the two intersect, as during a scene of Beans bringing her newfound toughness to a confrontation between her mom and the provincial police, that the film overcomes its more maudlin tendencies and becomes truly moving.
Holler (Grade: C+), another SXSW refugee making a belated debut at TIFF, also has a resonant, even symbolic backdrop. But aside from the scraggly forests and ominous smokestacks that writer-director Nicole Riegel films in gorgeous, grainy 16mm—evoking Barbara Loden’s similarly hard-bitten Wanda—there’s not much that’s memorable about this story. Like Nomadland, Holler deals in forgotten people dwelling in the margins of post-industrial America—here, a town in Southern Ohio choking on its last breaths after the plant that once employed most of the residents shuts down. And like Beans, it filters political issues through the perspective of a teenage girl struggling with responsibilities too big for someone her age. Unlike those films, however, it’s sometimes more generic than it is specific, despite Riegel’s commitment to realism.
Holler has the grim resolve of another reference point, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Jessica Barden stars as Ruth Avery, a high school senior who’s long since learned to take care of herself thanks to her upbringing by a mother grappling with opioid addiction. Older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) tries his best, but he’s not as smart as his little sister, and knows it. Still, the two are a tight family unit, working a series of marginally legal day-labor gigs to raise enough money for Ruth to attend what’s implied to be Ohio University—coincidentally enough, this writer’s alma mater. Their struggle hits a few too many familiar beats for viewers well-versed in indie dramas, which is an issue mostly because Riegel prioritizes plot over both symbolism and character. We see the struggles that Ruth goes through, but Holler never gives us a clear sense of the hopes and dreams fueling her fight to get out—or, indeed, if she’d rather just stay put.