Actors discovered at the Sundance Film Festival often hail from unexpected places. Take, for example, Quvanzhané Wallis, the eight-year-old New Orleans star of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” or Gabourey Sidibe, the overnight sensation at the center of Lee Daniels’ “Precious.” Both rode the wave of buzz to Oscar nominations.
Then there’s Menashe Lustig, the 38-year-old Hasidic Jew at the center of “Menashe,” a movie inspired by his life.
Lustig, whose starring role brought him immediate acclaim when “Menashe” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2017 edition of the festival, has never been so close to the secular world before. A native of the Hasidic enclave New Square in Brooklyn, Lustig spent some of his adult life in the U.K., moving back after his wife passed away. However, when he returned to Brooklyn, the local rabbi declared that until Lustig remarried, he would be an unfit parent for his son. Lustig has refused to remarry, and his son lives with another Hasidic family. That central dynamic inspired the plot of the movie, which marks the narrative debut of documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein and takes place almost entirely in Yiddish.
Shot like a classic neorealist film, the movie showcases an embellished version of Menashe’s own plight, as the main character struggles for the right to raise his son while the chief Rabbi in the community insist he’s raised by Menashe’s former brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Menashe copes with his dull routine at a local grocery store, where the only support he finds comes from his Hispanic coworkers.
“I wanted this drama to be small and specific,” said Weinstein, a non-observant Jew. “As soon as I heard Menashe’s story, it was clear to me that it was the kind of focus we wanted.”
It was very difficult for Weinstein to permeate the Hasidic community, where engagement with the secular world is strictly forbidden. “With a more established filmmaker, you have a sense that no matter how much we fuck this up, there will be a real movie in there,” said producer Alex Lipschultz, who also co-wrote the project. “With this, we had no idea.” The producer of previous Sundance hits such as “Computer Chess” and “Lovesong,” Lipschultz knew he couldn’t turn to traditional financiers to support this effort. “I knew I’d get laughed out of the room if i’d brought them a Yiddish-language movie from a filmmaker who’d never done a narrative before.”
Instead, Weinstein put his own money into producing a few scenes, showcasing the extent to which his movie would provide a window into this underrepresented world. It was enough to attract bigger investors, including Maiden Voyage Pictures, the production company co-founded by “Mrs. Doubtfire” director Chris Columbus.
But the trickiest coup was attracting his star.
Weinstein found Lustig after what he called “an insane game of telephone tag,” settling on the actor after seeing a handful of comedic YouTube videos he’d posted over the years. Lustig’s videos, thought to be among the first from the Hasidic community to surface on the site, present him in a series of Chaplinesque circumstances — struggling with a remote, vainly attempting to clean his car for Passover, making eggs with an iron. They’ve garnered tens of thousands of views, but little outside attention beyond a few roles in local Jewish theater and commercials. (On some commercials, producers weaseled him out of payment.)
“He’s this great Hasidic actor not appreciated in the community,” Weinstein said. “He was hungry for someone who understood and respected him.” Still, Lustig adhered to a strict interpretation of Jewish law, and hesitated to become involved with a project connected to the secular world.
But he has less to lose than some of his brethren. “Because of his refusal to get married, he’s already marginalized in the community,” Lipschulz said. “He’s not the world’s most popular guy. So when he took a risk on a film like this, he just felt this story was so important to tell.”
A portly man with long side locks stretched behind his ears and a thick red beard, Lustig dresses in traditional black-and-white garb and a thick black yarmulke that covers a large portion of his balding head. While he grew up in the U.S., he speaks English in halting phrases with a thick Yiddish accent.
Sitting down with IndieWire a day after “Menashe” premiered in Park City, Lustig seemed both naive about the degree of attention his movie could receive, and eager to embrace it. Interspersing his answers with the occasional “tsk,” he jutted his thumbs and elbows as if explaining some profound Talmudic principle.