NewFest 2020 Film Review: Tahara ★★★1/2

Following the suicide of one of their peers, best friends Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah (Rachel Sennott) are forced to spend the afternoon at their upstate New York Hebrew school reflecting on the passing of a classmate they apparently hardly knew in this queer dark comedy. Unfurling compellingly more or less in real time, director Olivia Peace and screenwriter Jess Zeidman—both making impressive feature debuts—establish an acerbic, The Breakfast Club type atmosphere, with the girls moving in and out of their struggling teacher Moreh Klein’s (nuanced work by Bernadette Quigley) classroom. During the preceding funeral service, the closeness of the friends is clear as they communicate with one another using a shared secret language that’s a mix of looks, physical gestures and written shorthand. As the day goes on though that tight bond between them will be tested, not least by some French kissing practice that leaves a sense of uncertainty in the air. There’s also a love triangle involving a boy Hannah has a crush on, Tristan (sensitively played by Daniel Taveras), with fragmentary details gradually emerging about how each of them treated the deceased girl.

Tahara. Courtesy of NewFest.

The intimacy and intensity of the situation is reflected by the look of the film, presented throughout in a 1:1 Aspect Ratio (with a couple of brief but impactful exceptions) and some heightened and fantasy moments beautifully expressed through Emily Ann Hoffman’s animated sequences. Filmed on location at the Rochester synagogue where Zeidman attended Hebrew school, there’s a claustrophobic authenticity to the film’s setting. Much of the success of Tahara relies on her well-crafted, layered screenplay and the two rich, subtle lead performances by DeFreece and Sennott (also wonderful in Shiva Baby) keeping things compelling and intriguing. Refreshingly it’s a teen film that doesn’t look down on or objectify its characters, examining our shared human foibles with humour and poignancy.

By James Kleinmann

Tahara played this year’s virtual NewFest the New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival.

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