The titular schlubby hero of Menashe might, with a few tweaks, be a perfect fit for the lead of a Judd Apatow comedy about a wayward man-child. He works a fairly menial job at a supermarket stocking shelves, but still manages to be bad at it; he’s well-liked by his co-workers, but irritating to his boss and his family, all of whom wish he’d stop cracking jokes and iron his shirts once in a while. Though Menashe (played by Menashe Lustig) is quite a relatable ne’er-do-well, his story is set in Hasidic Jewish Brooklyn, one of America’s most insular communities.
Joshua Z. Weinstein’s debut fiction film (he has directed several documentaries) is heavily indebted to the classic neorealism of the ’60s but is delivered entirely in Yiddish. It’s a quiet, poignantly told tale of a man who’s not exactly an outcast, yet who struggles to fit into a very ordered society. At times sweet, but never patronizing, Menashe examines a world that might seem foreign or oppressive even to other Brooklynites who live alongside the Hasidim—without ever turning its inhabitants into either caricatures or figures of fun.
Weinstein has accomplished that by rooting his story (co-written with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed) squarely in reality. Menashe’s story is based on the real-life struggles of Lustig, a Hasidic actor who has long clashed with some of the more conservative elements of his community. Like Lustig, Menashe is a widower with a young son he’s not allowed to live with, since Hasidic tradition forbids a man without a wife from raising a child. The simple solution is to remarry, but Menashe refuses to, finding excuses to object to everyone the community tries to set him up with.
Menashe is not about a bitter custody battle, or even a principled stand taken against an unfair society. Menashe’s love for his son Rieven (played by Ruben Niborski, the only non-Hasidic actor in the film) is not in doubt, although there’s a childish clumsiness to their times together. Menashe, critiqued by his strict and disapproving brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) as a schlimazel, is certainly a sloppy caregiver, feeding his son potato chips and soda for breakfast, and unsure of how to win his affection other than by buying him presents or taking him out for ice cream.
Even as Rieven is embarrassed by his dad, the two clearly share a deep bond. If there’s any religious conflict between Menashe and his late wife’s pious brother, it’s over the godliness of raising a child without a mother, and Menashe’s willingness to defy the instructions of his rabbi (Meyer Schwartz). The movie never develops into a Kramer vs. Kramer-style drama in its 82-minute running time: This is still a society where Talmudic law is absolute, and there’s little chance of bending it to accommodate Menashe’s unorthodox wishes.
The film’s most telling scene is one of the abortive dates Menashe goes on with a woman in a similar situation to him—widowed, with children, looking to make a new home. His potential partner grows quickly frustrated with Menashe’s unwillingness to join a marriage of convenience and with his inability to articulate the reasons for his stubbornness. She goes on to critique the men of her community as perpetually locked in childhood, cared for first by their mothers and then their wives.
It’s the one truly critical look at the rigid structure of Hasidic life that Weinstein allows the film, and it’s rightly offered by a woman, the most marginalized figure in Menashe’s world. His date is the only woman with a major role in the movie, but the biggest female presence is Menashe’s late wife, whose connection with her husband was obviously strong enough to linger after she died; that, to the people around him, is the most puzzling mystery.
But Menashe is wise not to be preachy, or to make sweeping judgments about Hasidic life. Weinstein’s workmanlike camera style allows him to act as a bystander who has gotten closer to a world that’s still sealed-off (the director struggled to convince Hasidic actors to participate in the project). In grounding the story in a particular personality, and the familiar connection between a father and son, Weinstein has created a subtly powerful work of human drama, driven by the charismatic, if frustrating, man at its center. Menashe bodes well for Weinstein’s future as a storyteller; it succeeds at taking older cinematic traditions of everyday storytelling and using them to help illuminate a world most viewers know little about.