Film Review: Menashe

Director Joshua Z. Weinstein brings down the walls of a secluded community with warmth and sympathy in this tender feature about a struggling single Hasidic father at odds with his traditions and his own competence.
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The most striking aspect of Menashe, writer-director Joshua Z Weinstein’s tender feature directorial debut about a struggling single Hasidic father, is its documentary-like nature. And that’s perhaps not a surprise, as Weinstein, in addition to being a cinematographer, is also a documentarian by trade. So when he follows around the story’s main character (warmly portrayed by Menashe Lustig) that gives this New York film its title, what he captures on camera has such an authentic urban texture and an unfussy sense of honesty that you can’t help but casually slip into it.

Performed mostly in Yiddish and reportedly shot in secret within the New York Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, Menashe is an intimate, affectionate and, to a degree, critical portrayal of both a man and the strict traditions he’s raised in. It’s a welcome rarity that mines amicability, sympathy and humor within a secluded subculture, making its private confines accessible and relatable at once.

Menashe is loosely based on Lustig’s real-life experiences that he went through after the unexpected passing of his wife. In the film, the likeable Menashe holds a thankless job as a grocery-store clerk and battles the challenges of being a single father within a community that demands he remarry if he wants to raise his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) himself. In the event that he fails to find another spouse and provide a satisfactory home for his son that consists of both a mother and a father (these are his rabbi’s demands), he would lose Rieven’s custody to the boy’s married uncle, who disapproves of Menashe’s rebellious ways. And time doesn’t seem to be on his side either: The rabbi grants Menashe one week only to spend with Rieven prior to his deceased wife Lea’s memorial service. That week won’t just be his chance to bond with his good-natured and precocious son (we quickly notice Rieven processes more than we might give him credit for), but also to prove to the skeptics of his tradition- and custom-driven community his worth and competence.

Along with his co-writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, Weinstein makes sure we know the essentials about Menashe early on. In one scene near the beginning, we watch as the honest worker proudly, albeit stubbornly, refuses to sell a passable head of lettuce he considers unacceptable to a customer. Through his gentle, caring dialogue with his son, we also observe that he is a good father at his core, and become well aware of his frustrations with a strict culture that he protests in small measures. Sometimes, Menashe revolts by not wearing the hat he is customarily required to wear, and other times he rudely (and a tad arrogantly) sabotages the matchmaker-set dates he goes on. But when he is given the opportunity to host his wife’s memorial dinner (despite his rabbi’s initial rejection), he decides to step up his game once and for all.

In charting the father-son relationship, Menashe walks a touching, melodramatic line reminiscent of a less dread-filled Bicycle Thieves or The Pursuit of Happyness. Menashe’s obstacle-strewn path leads to much embarrassment. And a combination of his own misjudgments and a poor run of luck do briefly ruin things for him. But Weinstein’s isn’t a film that wants you come out of it with despair and heartbreak. Instead, it modestly comforts you with its humanity and elicits your affection for a familiar man, trying to exist within the idiosyncratic rhythms and rituals of an unfamiliar New York community.

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