Documentary maker Joshua Z. Weinstein graduates to narrative features with this intimate account of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish widower at risk of losing his son due to strict religious tradition.
Contemporary screen depictions of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community — for instance Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies or Sidney Lumet’s A Stranger Among Us — have tended to raise eyebrows with their meshuggeneh casting of Hollywood recruits like Renee Zellweger and Melanie Griffith, and their sometimes patronizing perspective on the exotic otherness of a mysterious, insular world. On a much smaller, far more satisfying scale, Joshua Z. Weinstein’s charming Menashe immerses us in an authentic environment of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and makes it relatable by weaving a sweet story familiar in its general contours, of a single father struggling to hold onto the son he loves.
Written by Weinstein with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, and made almost entirely in Yiddish, the film bears invigorating traces of the director’s documentary background in its crisp, unembellished visuals, using predominantly natural light. Occasional passing shots of Orthodox men garbed in traditional heavy black coats and hats have an almost Edward Gorey-esque surrealness to them, and yet what makes the film so engaging is the thoroughness with which it humanizes and renders accessible the hermetic Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn. The unselfconscious performances of the nonprofessional cast are a winning element.
The title character is played by web comedian Menashe Lustig, whose own life served as the loose model for the story. His wife has been dead for some months, and pressure is building in the community for him either to remarry or to place his preteen son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) in the care of his late wife’s brother Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus). A family man with a thriving real-estate business and a long, righteous beard that makes scruffy Menashe look like an amateur, Eizik appears to take pleasure in reminding him that tradition prohibits a Hasidic child from being raised in a house without a mother. The boy also risks being kicked out of school if Menashe remains single.
It becomes instantly clear in dates arranged by a matchmaker that Menashe is not prepared to settle for a quick marriage of convenience, and yet neither is he willing to give up the consolation of his son.
Both Lustig and Niborski are wonderfully natural screen presences, and Weinstein shows a welcome light touch with both the humor and the sentiment. The joy in Niborski’s expressive eyes conveys how much light and closeness Rieven’s father brings into his life, despite the bumbling man’s reduced circumstances and the son’s creeping awareness that he might have more stability at dour Uncle Eizik’s house.
Menashe even struggles to hold down his lowly job in a kosher supermarket. But with the support of the stern but fair-minded rabbi (Meyer Schwartz), Menashe obtains permission to keep Rieven at home until his wife’s memorial service. Against Eizik’s wishes, he insists on holding the ceremony in his humble apartment, seizing on the chance to prove himself as both a dutiful father and a man of faith.
Weinstein flirts gently with slapstick throughout, such as in Menashe’s mishaps with a vanload of gefilte fish, or his failed efforts to bake kugel for the memorial. But the emotional underpinnings of the story are absolutely sincere, examining the conflict of a man trying hard to lead a devout life in a community where judgment is omnipresent and class distinctions matter, yet at the same time remain true to himself.
The writers touch delicately on the rigidity of the patriarchal society, notably in the invisibility of women in the shul, at the cemetery and at the memorial; or in the overheard protests of a young woman being prevented from attending college. But nothing is hammered too hard.
Likewise the open-ended conclusion, which doesn’t pull a magical, movie-ish ending out of its hat to resolve Menashe’s dilemma. Instead, it shows him acquiescing to what’s best for his son and their place in the community, but at the same time shouldering responsibility. In a handful of simple, uplifting images that include the ritual immersion of a mikveh and the acquisition of a more imposing new wardrobe, the film leaves us with the impression of a man taking the necessary steps to make himself whole again, and perhaps in time his family, too.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Cast: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz
Production companies: Shtick Film, Maiden Voyage Pictures, Where’s Eve, Sparks Productions, Autumn Productions
Director: Joshua Z. Weinstein
Screenwriters: Joshua Z. Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed
Producers: Alex Lipschultz, Traci Carlson, Joshua Z. Weinstein, Daniel Finkelman, Yoni Brook
Executive producers: Adam Margules, Danelle Eliav, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus
Directors of photography: Yoni Brook, Joshua Z. Weinstein
Music: Aaron Martin, Dag Rosenqvist
Editor: Scott Cummings
Sales: Mongrel International
Written by David Rooney
3:21 PM PST 1/23/2017