Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
First kisses, unrequited yearning, clumsy passes, unequal friendships, confusing orientations—Tahara proves that there is a fresh way to cover this material, and even if some of it isn’t completely new, all of it is engaging. The film is set on the day of a teenager’s funeral, a girl named Samantha; she committed suicide, a subject that is treated with approximately the same amount of sober introspection and gloom that you would find in a Billy Wilder movie. Not much, in other words, except in those fleeing moments when someone wonder whether a kind word might have made a difference.
Generally, though, the tone is dark comedy, as the funeral is followed by an afternoon of grief counseling at the Jewish school Samantha attended, with students trying gamely to speak profoundly about the departed (“She was really into yarn,” someone charitably offers). Our focus is on best friends Hannah (Rachel Sennott) and Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFleece), the latter of whom is Black, a point that doesn’t seem central to the movie’s purpose but isn’t a mere detail, either. Their comfortable shared cynicism is tested when Hannah suggests they kiss—she wants an opinion on her osculatory skills, because she plans to make out with a classmate (Daniel Taveras). In the act, Carrie feels something beyond the outline of besties innocuously sharing a tryout-kiss, while Hannah remains oblivious to these kindled feelings. (One of the film’s few rough edges is this aah-ooo-gah moment: Are we to infer that Carrie didn’t feel for Hannah that way before this? Or for other girls, for that matter?)
The afternoon proceeds, various teenage manipulations unfold, and the central friendship is permanently affected. Screenwriter Jess Friedman makes her points economically and with a strong ear for telling asides. Director Olivia Peace (her feature debut) frames the movie in an aspect ratio that is something like 1:1, as though to throw it back at the recent craze for making movies in old-fashioned 4:3: “You think Academy Ratio is narrow? Check this out.” I think it’s basically a gimmick, allowing for a moment when the frame expands with feeling, but I enjoyed looking at the screen for the film’s 77 minutes, so yes, it works. More importantly, cinematographer Tehillah de Castro makes these skinny frames dense with light and color, completely belying the film’s presumably low budget.
Tahara is also notable for the unified quality of the acting. So many directing debuts or low-fi efforts run aground because the actors are at loose ends, a collection of awkward amateurs and undirected talents. Not here. All the young actors are on the same page, and the finely-delivered one-liners unfold at just the right rhythm—this movie reminds you that a great deal of good acting is about pace. (Another thing Billy Wilder would appreciate.) If you saw Shiva Baby, maybe the best comedy released in 2021, you already know about Rachel Sennott’s eye-rolling comic touch, and Madeline Grey DeFreece matches that here by underplaying—a style that suits the friendship, too, as (with apologies to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) Carrie is clearly the Rhoda to Hannah’s Mary.
But everybody’s good, including Shlomit Azoulay and Jenny Lester as classmates, and Bernadette Quigley, spot-on as the teacher. Tahara is a miniature, but it’s just what it needs to be, and it succeeds at things that bigger films don’t get right—like the way its small world is truly imagined in precisely chosen images and sounds. (That is not as common as you might think.) It’s a funny film that never loses its gravity, served without an ounce of schmaltz.
Tahara opens this week at the Grand Illusion Cinema.
July 1, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.