A Brooklyn tale of father, son and Jewish community
“Menashe” marks the feature debut of documentary-trained director Joshua Z. Weinstein, who shot his movie, partially under wraps, across a two-year period in the Hasidim community of Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Borough Park district.
The film is in Yiddish and some English, with English subtitles. Weinstein, a secular Jew, used an interpreter on set, working with an ensemble largely made up of firsttime actors. The result is an act of partial, tenderly observed guerrilla filmmaking. It works; it takes you somewhere, quietly but evocatively, and it’s affecting without pulling at your heartstrings with both hands.
Essential details of “Menashe,” which Weinstein wrote with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, come from the life of the performer cast in the leading role, a wonderful, easygoing bear of a man named Menashe Lustig. In real life, Lustig, part of the restrictive New Square Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn, is a widower with a son, now a teenager. After several years in England, where his late wife came from, Lustig returned to Brooklyn. By his rabbi’s decree, he was required to remarry before regaining custody of his son. He has yet to do so.
From that situation, a fictionalized account was born, taking its name from the actor at the center. Weinstein opens his film with a busy Borough Park sidewalk, letting Menashe emerge from the crowd naturally, as the camera follows him to the right. He works as a grocer. He’s devout but a bit of a mess, always running late, boxed MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements) Running time: 1:21 in by his own life.
The narrative covers a week, leading up to Menashe’s late wife’s memorial, which Menashe is determined to hold in his tiny apartment. During that week, again by rabbinical decree, father regains custody of his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), as a sort of vacation from his new life with his prosperous aunt and uncle. The community is tightknit in the extreme; everyone knows everyone’s business.
The movie wouldn’t be much without the rapport established by Lustig and Niborski, a magically right duo. They embark on everyday diversions (getting ice cream; time spent at the kosher grocery, after Rieven’s school day), but each moment has an invisible question mark hanging overhead. Menashe is heartbroken about losing custody of his son; without undue hectoring or fingerwagging, director and co-writer Weinstein wonders, often purely visually, if this really is the best scenario for all parties.
Some of the narrative developments and conversational tangents feel contrived, but “Menashe” has a rhythm (brisk but unforced) that speaks well of Weinstein’s future in narrative storytelling. Lustig is a natural performer, and the comic short films he has posted on YouTube indicate a broad slapstick impulse we see only hints of in “Menashe.” Weinstein steers Lustig away from overt performance, in favor of covert emotion. It suits this world, and these people. In their scenes together, Lustig and the effortless Niborski rarely can be caught capital-A Acting, when small-b behavior, in this context, is so much richer.
Small but moving, “Menashe” has traveled well on the international film festival circuit. When it premiered at Sundance, Lustig was in attendance, and, he said, it was the first time he’d ever witnessed a screening of anything in an actual theater. Now that its limited commercial run is underway, I hope a few more people see it that way.
Menashe Lustig, left, plays a Jewish widower who faces losing custody of his son, played by Ruben Niborski.