When grandpa needs a place to live and his congregation needs a tenth man, what’s a good Jewish boy to do? For a mensch like David (Samuel H. Levine), the answer is clear. That’s a rarity in David’s religious Jewish faith — where answers are as hard to come by as Christmas hams. Like the meandering stories his grandfather tells on the walk to shul, Judaism is a faith that meets questions with more questions. In “Minyan,” the arresting and evocative feature film debut from documentary filmmaker Eric Steel, the search for answers turns up far more riches than any half-baked conclusion ever could.
The film opens and closes with two deaths, which both set events in motion that bring David closer to knowing himself. The first shot is an elegantly composed family portrait scored to the even drone of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish call to grief, recited with perfunctory solemnity. After his grandmother’s death, David’s grandfather Josef (a note-perfect Ron Rifkin) must downsize apartments for financial reasons. When a highly coveted spot opens up in subsidized housing at a religious center, which needs more men for its minyan, David is just the prize to help Josef’s application standout. (A minyan is a group of ten Jewish men, which Jewish law mandates must be present for certain prayers.)
The unorthodox living arrangement suits David, who is eager to get some distance from his abusive father (his punishment for a fight at school is a swift punch in the face) and suffocating mother. He spends his days reluctantly studying Torah, and his nights pilfering his parents’ vodka stores and taking the subway into the village to party with his friends. As they peel off with different girls, however, David side-eyes the lively gay bar outside his reach. It’s just across the street, but may as well be a world away. At least, that’s what the zany klezmer score Steel uses to weave his disparate narratives together seems to be saying. Almost every transition is eased by the kelp of a dizzying clarinet solo or lilting violin riff. It’s a neat trick, but it works.
After a rough day at school steels his nerves, David finally checks out that gay bar, which carries a musty magic even with a sparse midday crowd. It’s not exactly the steamy scene of his dreams, but a kind stranger buys him a drink or three, and he clocks a hunky bartender (Alex Hurt) reading James Baldwin. (One guess as to David’s next book choice.) As David explores the world of gay New York in the late ’80s (a terrifying time to be coming into your gay identity), he also develops a friendship with the two old men who live down the hall — in the same apartment. Their wives were friends before they died, and they’ve been living together ever since, or so says the building gossip. There’s Itzik (Mark Margolis); ornery but flirtatious, and Herschel (Christopher McCann); erudite and kind-eyed. One was a soldier, one’s a survivor — and they both take a shining to David.
While their place in the story is compelling, the relationship doesn’t fully cohere. Herschel’s Holocaust stories lack the emotional depth the topic requires, and instead feel shoehorned in to fabricate gravitas. Itzik’s death becomes a tool for David’s self-actualization, as he goes to bat for Herschel to be allowed to stay in the apartment. As the elderly couple comes further into focus, David’s relationship with his grandfather, a key element of the film’s first act, fades into the background. There are a few too many older men in David’s life. While it’s all ripe territory, a more focused narrative would have prompted the cathartic finale the film lacks.
Still, Steel deserves praise for tackling as much as he does. The hunky bartender returns in some pretty hot sex scenes (no “Call Me by Your Name” window-pans here), and it is through him that David discovers the bleak reality of the AIDS epidemic. The Baldwin references, while predictable, are an effective way to illustrate David’s growth. After switching to public school, a class discussion turns to “Giovanni’s Room,” and David remarks: “He isn’t a stranger to himself anymore. He can see inside himself.” Josef and David’s relationship, though it trails off, provides some of the film’s most charming moments. This is thanks in no small part to the delightful Ron Rifkin, who can imbue an evil spy mastermind (“Alias”) or an adorable elderly man with equal parts humor and heft. Levine, who broke out in Broadway’s “The Inheritance,” carries it all off with a smoldering finesse.
But the the manager of the building/shul has the film’s best line, when explaining his reasoning for letting Herschel stay in the apartment. “Thieves, adulterers, homosexuals. I take them all,” he says. “Without them, we would never have our minyan.” Belonging, and the search for it, takes many forms. From the dance floor to the neighbor’s couch, one can find family in the strangest of places. After all, there’s only one word separating chosen family from chosen people.
“Minyan” premiered at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.