Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah (Rachel Sennott, who also stars in Shiva Baby at NewFest 2020), the central characters in Olivia Peace’s Tahara, are BFFs who study at the same Hebrew school. A tragedy—the suicide of one of their classmates—brings them together for the girl’s funeral and a grief counseling session afterwards. The film’s title comes from the ritual of washing the body before burial; in case you didn’t know that, it comes up in the counseling session. Carrie stands out from the other mourners because she is African-American (as is one of the boys in her class), but she seems to be completely at home among her white peers.
Carrie and Hannah are not bad kids, but, like a lot of teenagers, they’re governed more by their hormones than by Judaic law. Gradually, the inequality in their relationship begins to emerge—Carrie has a moral compass, while Hannah is all about manipulating others to get what she wants. Hannah puts on a fine display of the kind of psychological warfare that is a teenage girl specialty, and the performances by both actors are so strong that you may forget that you’re watching a movie, rather than observing real life.
Tahara is the first feature film directed by Olivia Peace, and also the first screenplay written by Jess Zeidman (that got produced, anyway). It is an astonishingly assured piece of work from both women, that makes the most of its limitations—nearly all the film takes place in a single location, and there are only a few characters of note—these choices serving to heighten the emotional stakes for the characters. Peace also uses some interesting means to heighten the viewing experience—substituting puppets for the actors at key moments, and changing the aspect ratio from a claustrophobic square to the more typical rectangular shape.
Minyan is also the first feature for director Eric Steel, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Pearle, based on a short story by David Bezmozgis. The story is set in the Russian Jewish community of Brighton Beach (location shooting is a real plus) and centers on the story of a high school student, David (Samuel H. Levine), who is becoming aware of his attraction toward men, something completely unacceptable (but not nonexistent) in his community.
Following the death of his wife, David’s grandfather Josef (Ron Rifkin) must find a new apartment. He manages to get into a desirable spot in a subsidized building, in part by promising that his grandson will attend prayer services, providing the 10th man necessary to form a minyan. David takes up residence on his grandfather’s couch, which allows him to escape his squabbling parents (Brooke Blum and Gera Sandler), immigrants who are frustrated by their reduced status in America. This new living arrangement also allows David to meet what is clearly a gay couple living in the same building, intellectual Herschel (Christopher McCann) and ex-soldier Itzik (Mark Margolis).
Minyan is a leisurely film, running almost two hours, but it’s never boring thanks to the strength of the performances, the cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland, and especially the klezmer-inflected score by David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg. It’s not the kind of film that provides you with a lot of answers, but it does encourage you to keep asking questions.
Julia Scotti is a standup comedian. She’s also 65 years old and used to be known as Rick Scotti. Given the current bro-tastic state of standup (granted, I’m speaking from my somewhat admittedly incomplete experience of the genre), I’m not sure which characteristic makes her more unusual, but she makes them work together in a career that would make most comedians green with envy. Susan Sandler’s documentary Julia Scotti: Funny That Way showcases both Scotti’s current act and her journey to become the person and performer she is today.
It all began in Fairview, New Jersey, where Rick Scotti was born. He grew up to get married, father two children, and have a successful career as a comedian, touring the U.S. and Canada, opening for acts like Lou Rawls, K.C. & the Sunshine Band, and Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons, and appearing on various television and radio programs and TV commercials (some clips of Rick performing are included in the film—Julia now cringes at how sexist and transphobic the material is).
But something was off, and Julia decided that her life as a man did not fit. When she decided to transition to female, it was (temporarily) the end of everything—career, marriage, children. Julia worked as a teacher before deciding, in 2011, to try her hand at comedy again. In the process she created a stage presence that connects with audiences and took her to the quarterfinals of America’s Got Talent. Julia also regained contact with her children, now adults, and is helping her son develop his own comedy career. Julia Scotti: Funny That Way is a touching documentary illustrating the path of someone who had a rough road to travel but still came out on top. | Sarah Boslaugh
NewFest 2020 runs from Oct. 16 to Oct. 27, and most films in the festival are available for remote screening. Both single tickets ($12, $10 for members) and all-access festival passes ($95) are available. Further information, including details on the films and other events, is available from the festival web site.