By Alex McPherson

Olivia Peace’s directorial debut, “Tahara,” provides an incisive look at identity, grief, and societal pressures.

Unfolding during a single day within a Jewish synagogue, the film centers on best friends Carrie Lowstein (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah Rosen (Rachel Sennott) as they attend the funeral services for their Hebrew school classmate, Samantha Goldstein, who was shunned by her community for her queerness. Carrie, a soft-spoken Black woman, quickly realizes the hypocrisy on display from her peers and instructors, especially during the “Teen Talk-back” session in which she and her classmates are forced to discuss faith in relation to Samantha’s death. They are enacting a performative ritual that contradicts how many of them treated Samantha while she was alive. 

Everyone besides Carrie is seemingly driven by selfish interests, especially Hannah — an impulsive, reckless individual. Hannah is solely focused on attracting the attention of pretty boy Tristan Leibowitz (Daniel Taveras), rather than on grieving the loss of her classmate. After she coerces Carrie into “practicing” her kissing skills, Carrie’s true feelings for her come to the forefront. Hannah is forced to confront her own insecurities, and Carrie must navigate the troubled waters of their friendship.

Although the topics broached don’t break the mold for the coming-of-age genre, “Tahara” makes a positive impression from its opening frames and remains compelling throughout. 

The film’s distinctive style is apparent from the get-go — utilizing a 1:1 aspect ratio that creates a confined atmosphere, enhanced through frequent long takes. Additionally, when the characters experience a euphoric moment, the picture widens to fill the entire screen. During the aforementioned kiss, for example, colors whirl from all directions while Carrie and Hannah become smooching claymation figures — briefly existing on a different plane of existence, only to return to the restrictive norm immediately after.

Indeed, the whole film revolves around Carrie and Hannah’s relationship, as their bond is put to the test. Carrie’s mild-mannered personality sharply contrasts with Hannah’s, but “Tahara” effectively conveys their years of friendship through dialogue that, while often sardonic, feels authentic. DeFreece gives a particularly noteworthy performance as an individual facing challenges from multiple angles who eventually recognizes the importance of asserting herself. 

While Carrie remains sympathetic, Hannah is practically unbearable. Her self-absorption makes her difficult to watch at times, and her stubborn resistance to change proves incredibly frustrating. Sennott’s masterful performance, though, renders Hannah more complicated than she initially seems — an individual deeply unsure of her future and grappling with the person she wants to become. Although the film’s condensed time-frame limits how much we can learn about Carrie and Hannah individually, “Tahara” does a commendable job at illustrating their tensions, rendering each deeply human. 

Overlooking a few exaggerated side characters, Peace’s film successfully peels back the layers of its subjects’ cynicism to reveal a tragic, at times heartbreaking situation with young adults weighed down by external expectations. Religion, mourning, regret, self discovery, social status, and toxic friendships are all explored to various extents in this microcosm of teenage uncertainty. 

Despite some jokes that fail to land and occasionally heavy-handed symbolism, “Tahara” remains engaging from beginning to end. I wish Peace’s film wasn’t limited to showing a single day in the life of these characters, however, as the conclusion remains frustratingly open-ended and fails to give one specific character the resolution they deserve. The film’s initially comedic bent gives way to straight-up drama by the end credits, not shying away from ambiguity and leaving the future unpredictable.

Multifaceted and surprisingly ambitious, “Tahara” is a coming-of-age film worth experiencing, as well as an impressive calling card for director Peace.

“Tahara” is a 2020 movie directed by Olivia Peace that runs 78 minutes. It is a narrative feature selected for Cinema St Louis’ annual QFest, which will take place virtually April 16-25. For ticket information and festival offerings, visit www.cinemastlouis.com/qfest. Alex’s rating: B+

Stay home and still get your Q on!

The 14th Annual QFest St. Louis — presented by Cinema St. Louis (CSL) — will take place from April 16-25. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, CSL will offer all programs virtually, protecting the health of patrons. Programs can be streamed at any time during the festival’s dates. Recorded introductions and Q&As will be available for most film programs.

The St. Louis-based LGBTQ film festival, QFest will present an eclectic array of 24 films (14 shorts, six narrative features, and four documentary features). The participating filmmakers represent a wide variety of voices in contemporary queer world cinema. The mission of the film festival is to use the art of contemporary gay cinema to spotlight the lives of LGBTQ people and to celebrate queer culture.

The fest is especially pleased to host the St. Louis premiere of new works by internationally acclaimed filmmakers Agnieszka Holland (“Charlatan”) and François Ozon (“Summer of 85”). Another QFest highlight is this year’s Q Classic, the 50th anniversary of the trippy, experimental 1971 film “Pink Narcissus.”

Thanks to several generous sponsors, CSL is able to make the festival more accessible to all by offering both shorts programs free for the duration of the event.

For the full schedule of screenings, including trailers and descriptions of the films, visit the festival website at www.cinemastlouis.org/qfest. Advance digital screeners of the features and some of the shorts are available for press review on request. Please inquire with QFest St. Louis artistic director Chris Clark.

The 2021QFest St. Louis begins on Friday, April 16, and runs through Sunday, April 25. Tickets go on sale March 24. Tickets are $14 general, $10 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid and current IDs. Passes are also available: Five-Film Passes are $60, and All-Access Passes are $115. All screenings will be held virtually for residents of Missouri and Illinois via Eventive, CSL’s online presentation partner. Direct ticket links are available on the QFest website.

QFest St. Louis is sponsored by AARP Missouri, Arts & Education Council, CheapTRX, Grizzell & Co., Missouri Arts Council, Bob Pohrer & Donnie Engle, Crafted., Just John Nightclub, Matt Kerns, Regional Arts Commission, Deb Salls, St. Louis Public Radio, Cindy Walker, and Webster U. Film Series.

Social media: Facebook: @QFestSTL | Twitter: @QFestSTL | Instagram: @QFestSTL

“Charlatan”

FEATURES

THE CARNIVORES director Caleb Michael Johnson

U.S / 2020 / 77 minutes

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/388481118

One of the oddest and darkest films screened at QFest to date, “The Carnivores” features a young lesbian couple, Alice and Bret, whose dog, Harvie, is slowly dying. The vet bills are adding up fast, Alice is quietly panicking, and high-strung Bret dotes on the dog and ignores the reality of the situation. When poor, innocent Harvie goes missing, the fragile status quo is finally shattered, and both women go off the deep end in their own way. What had been a bright and happy little family unit is undone by self-doubt, suspicion, and a disturbing amount of ground beef. The Hollywood Reporter writes: “(Director) Caleb Michael Johnson employs a dreamlike, David Lynchian aesthetic to the proceedings throughout the film. If you are a fan of abstract, surreal storytelling supported by strong central performances and a fascinating relationship dynamic, then ‘The Carnivores’ has more than enough meat for you to chew.”

KEYBOARD FANTASIES director Posy Dixon

U.S / 2019 / 63 minutes

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xLkZirOa4k

As a sci-fi-obsessed woman living in near isolation, Beverly Glenn-Copeland wrote and self-released the album “Keyboard Fantasies” in Huntsville, Ontario, in 1986. Recorded in an Atari-powered home studio, the cassette featured seven tracks of a curious folk-electronica hybrid, a sound realized far before its time. Three decades on, the musician — now Glenn Copeland — began to receive emails from people across the world, thanking him for the music they’d recently discovered. Courtesy of a rare-record collector in Japan, a reissue of “Keyboard Fantasies,” with support by such electronic musicians as Four Tet and Caribou, had finally found its audience two generations down the line. “Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story” tells an intimate coming-of-age story that transmutes the pain and suffering of prejudice into rhythm, hope, and joy. Half audiovisual history and half DIY tour video, the film provides a vehicle for this newly appointed queer elder to connect with youth across the globe and serves as a timely lullaby to soothe those souls struggling to make sense of the world.

PS BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE Directors: Michael Seligman & Jennifer Tiexiera

U.S / 2020 / 101 minutes

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqGRrAjYgq4

A box of letters, held in secret for nearly 60 years, ignites a five-year exploration into a part of LGBTQ history that has never been told. The letters, written in the 1950s by a group of New York City drag queens, open a window into a forgotten world where being yourself meant breaking the law and where the penalties for “masquerading” as a woman were swift and severe. Using original interviews, never-before-seen archival footage and photographs, and stylized re-creations, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” reconstructs this pre-Stonewall era as former drag queens now in their 80s and 90s — including James Bidgood, director of this year’s Q Classic, “Pink Narcissus” — reveal how they survived and somehow flourished at a time when drag queens were both revered and reviled, even within the gay community. The government sought to destroy them and history tried to erase them, but now they get to tell their story for the first time.

TAHARA, director Olivia Peace and writer Jess Zeidman

U.S / 2020 / 78 minutes

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk_cB8HgDU0

In this queer coming-of-age dramedy, two girlfriends attend a “Teen Talk-back” after the funeral service of their former Hebrew-school classmate. Although the session is designed to help them understand grief through faith, it instead leads to other discoveries, with surprising sparks igniting when one of the girls is manipulated into a romantic encounter with her best friend. The Queer Review writes: “Filmed on location at the Rochester synagogue where (screenwriter Jess) Zeidman attended Hebrew school, there’s a claustrophobic authenticity to the film’s setting. Much of the success of ‘Tahara’ relies on her well-crafted, layered screenplay and the two rich, subtle lead performances by (Madeline Grey) DeFreece and (Rachel) Sennott (also wonderful in ‘Shiva Baby’) keeping things compelling and intriguing. Refreshingly it’s a teen film that doesn’t look down on or objectify its characters, examining our shared human foibles with humor and poignancy.”

SHORT FILM

Eleven Weeks – director Anna Kuperberg (Wash U grad)

U.S / 15 MINS / 2020

Faced with a fast and aggressive cancer, Carla Jean Johnson accepts her diagnosis with clarity and grace, as photographer Anna Kuperberg, her longtime wife, documents their final days and weeks together.

“Pink Narcissus” celebrates 50th anniversary

Escape From Margaritaville Washes Ashore and Wastes
Away

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

Escape From Margaritaville is not your typical musical theater experience. In fact, one deigns to even dub it a “musical.” It’s more party than performance.

That’s because to receive the full benefit of buying a ticket – and for the show to reach its limited potential – requires the audience to fully engage – that is to actually participate – in its Parrot-headed premise.

Escape From Margaritaville hails from the Jimmy Buffet industrial complex and is an island-flavored entertainment with as much realism as a cheesy travel brochure. The show snorkeled into town at The Fabulous Fox on October 18-20.

Riding in the wake of other successful, so-called jukebox musicals, Margartaville is conspicuously designed to ride in on the high tide of box office success of other productions of this ilk, namely Mama Mia! and Rock of Ages.

These successful shows provided the recipe-cum-template for
Margaritaville, which tosses Buffet’s beguiling country-western-in-a-Hawaiian-shirt
tunage and Will Rogers-ish, aw-shucks humor into a blender with a tropish,
silly “boy meets then loses girl” plot, trying to render a frozen concoction
that hopes to help the audience hang onto their ticket stubs for a breezy couple
of hours.

But instead of landing an expected sharknado of sing-along
shenanigans, Friday night’s performance reeled in gasping guppies. The reason
why was not the bait. Who doesn’t love Buffet’s easy, languid, catchy,
comfortable-as-your-favorite flip-flops songs such as “Volcano,” “Fins,” “Come
Monday,” “Son of a Son of a Sailor” and the title song? It’s nearly impossible
not to like these fan faves, just ask thousands – if not millions – of Parrot
Heads the world over.

Nor was the show’s failure to launch due to the
aforementioned plot, which surely does not require one to suspend very much
disbelief. After all, the show’s tagline says it all: “Set Your Mind on Island
Time.” That should be easy to do, given Buffet promotion of a fiddle-dee-dee,
“Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” mindset.

But the dialogue was predictable, flavorless and seemed like it was borrowed from a second-rate sitcom, which is a shame since it came from Emmy-winner Greg Garcia (My Name is Earl, Family Matters and Family Guy) and Mike O’Malley (the award-winning Survivor’s Remorse).

The plot tortuously bends to accommodate the story of two
women from Cincinnati on a bachelorette binge. Rachel, the lead, played by
Sarah Hinrichsen, is a type A scientist whose friend, Rachel, played by Shelly
Lynn Walsh, is soon to be married to the bro-y, doltish Chadd, broadly played
by Noah Bridgestock with thankfully short stage time.

The women predictably become entwined with islanders Tully,
the other lead played by Chris Clark, and Brick, played by Peter Michael
Jordan. Of all the performances on Friday night, Jordan’s was the only lively
stand-out – and that’s not damning the performance with faint praise. He
practically carried the show, especially during the campy tap number in the
second act. Even the horny ole codger, J.D., played by Patrick Cogan, needed an
extra shot of Ron Rico (or another “little blue pill”) at this performance.

All of the shortcomings of Escape From Margaritaville
could have been overcome with a more enthusiastic and fully engaged audience.
The producers tried to turn the show into an event with free leis at the
entrance, a precious few moments when the actors broke the fourth wall, and a
boatload of beachballs released during the final number. But the audience
response was lackluster. It needed more die-hard, fully plumed Parrot Heads or
at least more attendees who were willing to abandon their self-reserve in favor
of the show’s charms for a couple of hours.

That, and unlike Rock of Ages, which packed a
decade’s worth of 80s big-haired rockers, Escape to Margaritaville
needed more – much more – of Buffet’s appealing, easy-on-the-ears-and-mind
tunes. Good times need good tunes, and these felt in short supply in this show,
leaving some at the exits, escaping from Margartaville.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presented “Escape from Margaritaville” October 18-20.