MENASHE, comedy-drama, not rated, in Yiddish with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts,
Menashe is a sweet, schlubby man, and a sweet, schlubby movie. The title character (Menashe Lustig) is a bumbling grocery clerk in Brooklyn’s Borough Park Hasidic community, a sad sack, a schlemiel, a tubby, disheveled man who gets no respect. He’s a recent widower, struggling to retain custody of his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski), who, by the decree of his rabbi, cannot be raised in a single-parent home. While Menashe listlessly explores the matchmaker’s services, Rieven has been remanded to the custody of the family of his mother’s brother (Yoel Weisshaus), an arrogant, successful real-estate investor who expresses open contempt for his hapless brother-in-law.
But while there’s genuine affection and emotion in the film’s depiction of the father-son relationship, and its insider’s perspective on the insular Hasidic community into which Menashe fits with dogged discomfort, the film lacks shape and structure. The story is based on Lustig’s own circumstances — after his wife’s death, his Brooklyn rabbi declared him unfit for custody of his son until he remarried, and Lustig’s son still lives with another family in the community.
Documentary filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein takes his first shot at a feature film with and he shows himself to be more comfortable with character than with structure. His documentary skills are most evident in the film’s almost stealthy observation of a community that does not encourage exposure to the outside world.
Lustig, an actor who has made some ripples with YouTube comedic posts, dominates the film. His character is deeply immersed in the Hasidic culture, and yet his religious commitment seems a bit more haphazard than that of the strictly observant people around him. Over his brotherin-law’s objections, Menashe is determined to host his late wife’s memorial dinner, and for the week leading up to that event, the rabbi has granted a dispensation for Rieven to live with his father. Preparations, of course, go awry, and there’s a bit of friction between father and son, but for the most part, Lustig and Niborski create a close and credible bond. Aside from their relationship, the most recognizably human interaction is between Menashe and his two Hispanic co-workers at the kosher grocery, where he finds himself in constant trouble with his boss. One of the film’s best moments is a scene where the three of them bond and laugh in the store’s back room over a few bottles of beer. It’s not exactly a criticism of the rigid religiosity of the Hasidic community, but it does suggest a wistful peek over the fence at the wider world beyond. — Jonathan Richards