Let me state up front that I'll be completely and utterly stunned if Tahara, the feature debut for both director Olivia Peace and screenwriter Jess Zeidman, isn't heavily in the conversation come awards season. The film co-stars Madeline Grey DeFreece and Shiva Baby's breakout star Rachel Sennott as lifelong inseparable BFFs who gather at the funeral of a classmate, Samantha, who has died by suicide and whose death seems almost uncomfortably irrelevant to a good majority of her fellow students at the Hebrew school she attended. They go through the rituals and traditions of grief, but one has to question whether or not they truly grieve.
Tahara is, quite simply, a quietly extraordinary film shining a spotlight on characters we seldom see living lives that feel rich and honest and, yeah, even a little funny. There's a natural poignancy to Tahara, an unexpected depth of emotional resonance amidst a coming-of-age story that feels like it could easily be part John Hughes if Hughes had ever written a queer Jewish dramedy centered around the societal expectations of grief.
Sennott once again proves herself to be an up-and-coming cinematic wonder as Hannah, a self-absorbed and attention-seeking young woman who is, perhaps most notably, also still remarkably likable in that "You're a pain the ass, but I still adore you!" kind of way. As mesmerized as I was by Sennott's Hannah, it's Madeline Grey DeFreece's rather remarkable turn as Carrie that truly left me in awe and immersed me in their world. Simultaneously introspective and nerdish and a Black queer Jew, Carrie's transformation over the course of this seemingly slight yet well-developed 77-minute film emotionally reverberates like few characters actually have this year. When an innocent kissing exercise turns Carrie's world inside out, Tahara takes a remarkable turn that somehow manifests naturally even as we're sitting watching a teenage talk-back session in the hours after Samantha's funeral.
Tahara is a coming-of-age story, for sure, but it's a coming-of-age story that realizes that coming-of-age involves a whole lot more than some simplified thoughts or talk-backs. Coming-of-age can't be summed up, not really, in some ritual or ceremony or opportunity to vent. Coming-of-age happens in daily life as we figure out what it means to grieve and what purpose grief serves in our society. Coming-of-age also happens as we fumble around our relationships and figure out boundaries and learn how to live and love and want and need and regret. Tahara manages to tackle all of these things, sometimes in ways that feel familiar and sometimes in ways that feel like "Aha!" moments come to life.
There are so many moments in Tahara that simply work. As I sit here writing, I'm remembering them and I'm feeling them and, yeah, I'm both laughing and occasionally feeling that moisture welling up in my eyes. They are moments between Carrie and Hannah, of course, but they're also moments that come to life in one of the year's best ensembles including a wonderful Bernadette Quigley as Moreh Klein, Shlomit Azoulay as Elaina, and especially Daniel Taveras as Tristan, the latter being identified as Samantha's boyfriend but whose significance is, perhaps, much deeper.
Tahara is a truly remarkable directorial debut from Olivia Peace and one of 2022's true indie gems. It's a film that tells a unique story and tells it incredibly well. With heart and humor, intelligence and insight, Tahara should most assuredly be remembered during this year's Independent Spirit Awards.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic