The Hebrew-school comedy “Tahara” mimics the zinging pleasure of overhearing teenagers chatter as they walk home from school: It’s gossipy, delicious and a tad cruel. The film eavesdrops on a group of teenage students during a critical day in their lives, when a classmate’s funeral has prompted them to wrestle with social status and school personas. Their dialogue crackles with vocal fry and viciousness as they reckon, maybe for the first time, with the consequences of school hierarchies.
The story follows two longtime friends, Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah (Rachel Sennott), for a day of mourning alongside their classmates, crushes and nemeses at a Rochester, N.Y., synagogue. One of their peers, Samantha, has committed suicide, and the synagogue is hosting a talk-back session for students to share their feelings about her death. Carrie is an honest type, and she’s perplexed by the melodramatic performances of grief shown by her classmates. Hannah, on the other hand, is more interested in flirting than in grieving. Her pursuit of attention adds a discordant note to an already chaotic requiem. It’s a diminished chord that Carrie wants to resolve — particularly because she harbors feelings for Hannah, who kisses her in the synagogue bathroom under the guise of practicing for a boy.
“Tahara” — a feature debut for both its director, Olivia Peace, and its writer, Jess Zeidman — smartly zeros in on the divide between students and the adults who try to facilitate conversations about grief. For the grown-ups, Samantha’s death is a matter of gravity that calls for solemn mourning. But some students respond with ambivalence, treating the suicide as an opportunity to add tallies to the ledger of who is attractive and who is disliked. Peace, the director, adds to the claustrophobia of this high-school panopticon by presenting the movie in a square format: It is shot with the kind of boxy frame common in old Hollywood movies, which here evokes an Instagram post. This is a canny, compact portrait of teenage insensitivity, all the more riveting for its biting dialogue and funny performances.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 18 minutes. In theaters.