by George Wolf
If you saw Rachel Sennot’s breakout performance in last year’s wonderful Shiva Baby, the setup of Tahara is going to look pretty familiar. But in their feature debut, writer Jess Zeidman and director Olivia Peace find a vibrant, refreshing lens for their own look at one funeral’s anxious aftermath.
Sennot is terrific again as the self-centered Hannah, who joins her more reserved best friend Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece, also excellent) at the service for their Hebrew school classmate Samantha. Samantha killed herself at the age of 18, and after the funeral the girls will join other classmates at a grief session to talk about their feelings.
They will also gossip, navigate cliques, and bitch about having to be there while they try to catch the eye of Tristan (Daniel Taveras).
At least Hannah will be flirting with Tristan. Because Carrie is hiding some true feelings for her bestie, a conflict that Peace and Zeidman surround with some touching and effective parallels.
Peace frames most of the film in a square, 1:1 aspect ratio, but goes wide at important moments, most of which are animated. It’s a clear nod to the times when Carrie, a young Jewish queer woman of color, sees herself – and the world – in new ways.
Though the animation sequences and lack of score can give the film an experimental feel, a juxtaposition with the Jewish ritual meant to cleanse the body before burial (Tahara) ultimately grounds it as a deeply personal journey.
The students tell their teacher (and by extension, those not familiar with Jewish traditions) that the ritual’s goal is to “erase social status,” which feeds perfectly into the teenage power struggles (and one suicide) we see through the eyes of a type of character not often represented.
At times funny, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking, Tahara is an ambitious and ultimately moving film, from a pair of voices we should look forward to hearing again.