The story of a lower-class father attempting to raise his young son doesn’t sound like groundbreaking material, but “Menashe” puts that bittersweet formula into an exciting new context. Shot exclusively in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community in Borough Park with a script almost entirely spoken in Yiddish, the narrative debut of cinematographer and documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein has the precision of an ethnographic experiment. The movie exists within the confines of its insular setting, and features a cast of real-life Hasidim riffing on the traditions that govern their everyday lives, but manages to mine a degree of emotional accessibility that extends far beyond the neighborhood’s borders.
The title character is portrayed by Menashe Lustig, a gentle, portly figure whose circumstances inspired the melancholic plot. His performance is so heartbreaking in its authenticity that the movie often borders on documentary, and yet it maintains an engaging pace as it builds up to a climax around the character’s attempt to salvage his ailing personal life.
When he’s not struggling through a dead-end job at the local supermarket, Menashe’s fighting to stay involved in the life of his young son Rieuven (Ruben Nyborg), who has been living with his pious uncle Eizik and his family since the death of Menashe’s wife. The strict community — overseen by a wizened rabbi whose flowing beard dwarfs those worn by the other men — expects Menashe to find a new wife before he can raise his son in a responsible environment. But the poor schlub (or, as his mercilessly cruel ex-brother-in-law puts it, “schlemiel”) can barely make rent. Hurtling through one random crisis after another, Menashe demands that he host an upcoming memorial dinner for his late wife on the occasion of the unveiling of her tombstone, setting a deadline for him to finally prove he can take charge.
Shot amid crowded streets and cramped apartments, the movie’s naturalistic style and emotional core suggest what might happen if the Dardenne brothers remade “Bicycle Thieves” with a screenplay by Isaac Bashevis Singer. While it’s littered with precise references to Hasidic rituals without context for the uninitiated, Menashe’s conundrum remains deeply involving thanks in large part to its relatable lead. Prone to outbursts when he’s not gazing mournfully out the window, Menashe’s an amusing klutz and an object of extreme sympathy, trapped by his environment even as he eagerly tries to sync up with its expectations. “I’m not an outsider here!” he declares at one point, but no matter what he does, that’s where he finds himself.
Co-written by Alex Lipshcultz and Musa Syeed (whose “A Stray,” a similarly naturalistic look at a Muslim immigrant, was an underappreciated festival gem in 2016), Weinstein’s script burrows inside the nuances of Hasidic life to unearth frustrations from the inside out. “Must the rabbis meddle in everything?” Menashe sighs, when the rabbi determines that Rieuven can’t stay with his dad. Notably, Weinstein and his collaborators don’t waste time with extensive discussions of theology, since the majority of these characters take their beliefs for granted.
The narrative is so well entrenched in the community in may as well hail from another country, and in doing so it magnifies the disconnect between the world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the secular routines surrounding it. (“The gentiles have broken homes and so they have a broken society,” Eizik asserts, illustrating the disdain for bucking tradition that makes Menashe’s life so difficult.) Weinstein (also credited as a co-cinematographer) shows his documentary chops in street scenes that find Menashe wandering within the confines of a crowded world that’s blind to his problems.
Though its melancholic tone holds tight, “Menashe” is frequently charming and funny, foregrounding the bumbling Menashe’s efforts to make sense out of his hectic life. Whether struggling through a kugel recipe or toying with the baby chick he gives his son in an effort to charm him, Menashe’s always putting valiant effort into doing the right thing — which makes his struggles all the more tragic.
Having built up its premise around a climactic event, the movie falls short of satisfying results, with the understated approach slowly winding down rather than providing sufficient payoff. But the real strength of “Menashe” lies with its ability to be a fly on the wall of a fragile existence that can take any number of unexpected turns. A critical moment arrives not from Talmudic discussion, but a conversation between Menashe and his sympathetic Latino coworkers as the men share beers at the end of the day. With its intimate focus, “Menashe” avoids indicting the strict logic that stifles its anti-hero’s individuality (though secular viewers can reach their own conclusions). Instead, it succeeds at showing how his challenges are more universal than judgmental viewers might think.
“Menashe” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.