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.