This Tahara review contains mild spoilers.
Before many of us learn about ourselves, we have to learn about others. We try on different people like outfits we’ll soon outgrow — first our parents, then maybe siblings, celebrities, our friends. We’re searching for ourselves and getting lost along the way.
When you’re queer this process is often complicated by even less self-knowledge. There’s a divide from our parents, from our straight siblings, there’s confusion if we want to be our favorite celebrities, our closest friends, or be with them — kiss them, hold their hand, marry them, fuck them, smash our faces together until we become one.
Our parents are insufficient role models. Our siblings are insufficient role models. Our celebrities are insufficient role models. And, sometimes, our friends and crushes are even worse. Trial and error — mostly error — as we try and solve the unsolvable question: Who am I?
Olivia Peace’s new film Tahara finds a queer Black Jewish girl at the culmination of this journey. Her queer classmate committed suicide and now she has to spend the day at her synagogue for the funeral and a “teen talk back.” She’s joined by her best friend/crush and her best friend/crush’s crush and her best friend/crush’s rival and other classmates with their own adolescent trials. The heaviness of the moment — a heaviness they struggle to care about — hangs over each of these dramas.
Carrie Lowstein, our protagonist, and Hannah Rosen, her best friend/crush, are introduced via Instagram tags. The film is shot in a 1:1 Instagram aspect ratio while the images themselves from cinematographer Tehillah De Castro are far more beautiful than what you’d usually see on the app. The whole film carries this tension between a sort of frivolous modernity and a timeless depth. It’s the tension between Carrie and Hannah. In this moment, unlike any moment they’ve experienced in their young lives, Carrie is faced with a decision between Hannah’s worldview and her own developing beliefs.
Madeline Grey DeFreece plays Carrie with a sharp fluidity. Whether she’s mimicking Hannah, mimicking another classmate, or mimicking an idea of herself, Carrie feels like the same shifting person. Some media portrays teens as the kids they are, other media makes them adults, but this is the rare film that feels grounded in that precise moment of 18 where they’re both. A lot of this can be credited to DeFreece’s performance that’s dramatically subtle and comedically heightened all at once.
Opposite DeFreece as Carrie’s best friend/crush (and my personal nightmare) is the always hilarious Rachel Sennott. Hannah is even more concerned with fitting in than Carrie but this manifests absent of doubt. She barrels through the movie, the most upsetting element at a literal funeral, sewing chaos in every interaction. And yet she’s too recognizable — for teens and former teens, for queer girls, for Jews — to be anything but human. Sennott shows how so many of our young crushes were seductive and repulsive all at once. It takes this dramatic moment for Carrie to see Hannah fully — like going on a date with a flirt and learning they’re rude to waitstaff.
Beyond DeFreece and Sennott, the whole cast is perfect. Everyone is so recognizably human, recognizably Jewish. Daniel Taveras as teen heartthrob Tristan, Shlomit Azoulay as the popular girl, Bernadette Quigley as the supposed adult in the room. Even the bit parts — classmates, adults at the funeral — felt less the result of a casting call and more like they were plucked from my synagogue.
It’s a cast that lives up to the obviously hilarious and subtly complex script from Jess Zeidman. There are enough jokes and hijinks that its depth and emotion surprise and continue surprising after the film has ended. It may be weird to say that a movie about a queer teen processing another queer teen’s suicide is more than just a laugh, but that’s how it ends up feeling. Our characters are at a place in their lives where they’re more upset about a crush than a death — at least on the surface — and the script smartly has us live in that perspective.
If the script buries its artfulness within, Olivia Peace’s direction has no such qualms. Peace and De Castro don’t shoot this like a teen comedy but like an art film. From the aspect ratio to the animated sequences to the ingenuity of shots, whenever Peace can make a choice, they do. And every choice works. They bring such a clear artistic vision to a genre that often favors story to craft. It’s an audacious debut and announces Peace as less an artist to watch and more an artist already arrived.
We often associate risk-taking queer cinema with explicit content. We think of graphic sex and shocking violence, an irreverence that spits in the face of respectability. This describes so much of my favorite queer cinema. But watching Tahara, and then rewatching Tahara, I was struck by a realization that these qualities are just one way to take risks, to feel edgy, to feel queer. Tahara may only have off-screen death and only go as far as a kiss — it still has the danger of the best queer art. It’s formally and narratively inventive to the extent that it lives outside of straight culture. It’s exactly what I want from contemporary low-budget queer filmmaking.
As stated in the film, tahara is a Jewish cleansing ritual performed on a body to prepare an individual for death. It’s also a metaphor for Carrie as she tries to cleanse herself from Hannah. Can it further be a metaphor for this moment in queer cinema? Just like we all get to decide who we want to be as we enter adulthood, we also get to decide what we want from our cinema. Do we want to embrace the seduction of respectability and ease? Or do we want art that challenges us and takes risks and finds comedy in discomfort and discomfort in comedy? I know what I want. I want movies like Tahara.