TAHARA – Review by Barbara Goslawski

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Cleverly stylized, Olivia Peace’s impressive debut feature, Tahara is a perceptive variation on the familiar coming-of-age theme. By situating this microcosm of teen types in both a structural and symbolic bubble (think The Breakfast Club but more artistically inventive), she creates a more universal statement. This queer coming-of-age dark comedy becomes more of a meditation on the various types of relationships we find ourselves in – be they social groups, casual relations, or our most intimate connections – and articulates the difficult process necessary to extricate ourselves from the toxic ones.

Best friends Carrie Lowstein (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah Rosen (Rachel Sennott) attend the funeral of a fellow student, Samantha Goldstein, who died by suicide. Peace wisely lets events unfold in real time, a strategy which immerses us in their world. More importantly, this approach allows the underlying tensions in their relationship to build and intensify.

Hannah’s exasperating self absorption leads to a kissing game which leaves Carrie reeling. Add to that the love triangle created by Hannah’s obsession with Tristan (Daniel Taveras), and the emotional dynamic begins to teem with breathtaking tension. As they attend a mandatory faith-based grief counselling session at their Hebrew school with their peers, the games that teens play cause the close bond between the girls to rupture.

The teen types and their dramas are all familiar but in Tahara there is a freshness to this director’s approach. Her observations of these characters and their cliques is incisive. Peace brilliantly captures the sometimes subtle but often overt maliciousness in these social dynamics as the inescapable percolating hormones launch into orbit. The writing in this film is important, but the acting is key. Although playing a type, each actor graces their character with a nuanced, note-perfect performance.

Tahara’s visual style is beguilingly fragmented and claustrophobic. The director expertly employs a framing device that acts like a mirror of social media posts (mainly Instagram) but more importantly intensifies the dynamics. With a 1:1 aspect ratio, basically a square, the screen barely reins in the characters’ crushing emotions and it sometimes feels like these will break through that fourth wall.

Peace interrupts this formal rigour for a moment only, one that is highly significant and deeply impactful. Scenes are presented in fragments – at times, the shots are mere visual hints – and the emotional power of some of the moments is augmented with an authentically rough animation style.

Using the hypersensitive dynamics of teen emotions and dynamics as a jumping off point, Olivia Peace has fashioned a universal message about human frailty and relationships. Tahara reminds us of that fine line between platonic and sexual love, accentuated in this case by characters who are innocents in that department and are just beginning to understand where their preferences lie.

Tahara’s focus on teen relationships and the confusion that happens when people toy with feelings is inspired, and it speaks volumes. This is a smart, funny, and poignant film – a finely tuned statement on relationship dynamics and on the importance of being true to yourself.

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Barbara Goslawski

Barbara is co-host/co-producer of Frameline. As a freelance writer and film critic for the past 30 years, she has contributed to numerous dailies and magazines including The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Film Encyclopedia, and Box Office Magazine, as well as to several books. A veteran of the Canadian film industry, Barbara has worked in many key areas including distribution and programming, and has also served on various festival juries