ME­NASHE, com­edy-drama, not rated, in Yid­dish with sub­ti­tles, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts,

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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

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