Tahara

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Tahara
"DeFreece is excellent and provides the backbone of the film." | Photo: Courtesy of Newfest

Experiencing the death of a classmate is jarring, disorientating; unlike bereavement later in life, it disorders one's understanding of the world. Teachers rarely know how to help. The divide between adult and teenage perspectives on life is never more apparent. It's especially difficult when the person who died was struggling day to day with shame and despair, and everyone knew, and no-one helped. No-one was close to the girl whose funeral opens this film, but they knew she had a crush on Hannah (Rachel Sennott). Only Hannah seemed not to notice. Hannah is very good at not noticing things.

Hannah has a crush on Tristan (Daniel Taveras). Everyone knows this because she gushes about him constantly and rearranges her cleavage in his presence, despite the fact that he's shown no sign of interest. Even at the funeral, she won''t stop chattering about him and dreamily looking his way. It would be sweet if it weren't so destructive. It's not so sweet when, wanting to practice kissing so she can impress him when the longed-for moment comes, she coerces best friend Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) into helping her, wilfully oblivious to Carrie's romantic feelings for her.

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DeFreece is excellent and provides the backbone of the film. It's Sennott who gets the bulk of the lines, as she's rattling on almost non-stop, but DeFreece's lines carry a lot more weight. Being one of very few people of colour in a small Jewish community and also being same sex attracted can't ever have been easy. Carrie has a natural wariness, a quietness that makes her the perfect support for Hannah's ego, whilst she gets somebody to hide behind. The kiss changes things, however, as does the pressure of the occasion - not just reactions to the death in themselves, but the performative behaviours around it. The synagogue is open all day but there are no classes. Instead, a teacher invites one student after another to share their feelings. Nobody is ready for honesty.

Writer Jess Zeidman and director Olivia Peace are very good at teasing out the complex social rules of teenage life and exploring the effects on their protagonists of moving from this into a more adult world. The importance of knowledge and popularity is giving way to a focus on understanding and more nuanced connections, and in the process the balance of power between the two girls is tipping. Hannah's behaviour is often monstrous, but she's not a monster, and there's room in the script for us to feel both sympathy and pity for her. There's a degree of daring in Sennott's performance, inhabiting so completely a character who is constantly at risk of ridicule, though none of her peers has as yet been bold enough to call her on her behaviour. Tristan, meanwhile, is kept in the background for most of the running time, objectified by Hannah's gaze, yet he has his own concerns and priorities, putting her best laid plans in jeopardy when he turns out to be a human being in his own right.

Filmed in a real synagogue (Temple Beth-El in Rochester, New York), Tahara perfectly captures the mood of the place and the juxtaposition of its efforts to spread wisdom and awareness with the chaotic lives of its young attendees. It is both a portrait of a community and an exploration of where community comes from. It is at its best, however, when exploring the uncertain ground between intense platonic friendships and erotic connection between girls, with all its potential for miscommunication and heartbreak. In a generation increasingly alert to the fuzziness of identity categories, learning to interpret others' signals has never been more important.

Reviewed on: 03 Nov 2020
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A queer, coming of age drama set in Rochester, NY about an anxious teen girl who is manipulated into a romantic encounter with her best friend during the funeral service of their former Hebrew school classmate.

Director: Olivia Peace

Writer: Jess Zeidman

Starring: Madeline Grey DeFreece, Rachel Sennott, Daniel Taveras, Bernadette Quigley

Year: 2020

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US


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