Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Stars: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski. Yoel Weisshaus, Yoel Falkowitz, Meyer Schwartz.
The opening night attraction for the 2017 Jewish International Film Festival, Menashe has finally gained a limited cinema release.
Menashe (played by popular web comic and Youtube star Menashe Lustig) is a widowed Hasidic Jew living and working in Brooklyn. He works in a local convenience store where he stacks shelves, sweeps the sidewalks and occasionally mans the check out counter. He also loves his young son Rieven (newcomer Ruben Niborski), but, according to the strict traditions of the Hasidic leaders the son must be raised in a household with two parents. If he cannot find a new wife, then Rieven will have to be raised by his wealthy, controlling and deeply religious uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his family.
It has been a year since his wife Lea passed away, and there is only a week until a memorial service will be held for his late wife. The rabbi agrees that Menashe can use that time with Rieven while the preparations for the memorial dinner are made. But things do not always go smoothly for the well-meaning but hapless Menashe.
Menashe is a scruffy, overweight, melancholy, oafish and disorganised man who is struggling financially, but he loves his son and wants to do everything he can to see that he can continue to look after him, even if it means embarking on a rather soulless and frustrating series of dates. Lustig has a genial screen presence and we warm to the character despite his many obvious flaws and we can empathise with his daily struggles to prove that he is a fit parent. Niborski has an unforced, natural presence and there is a great dynamic between him and Lustig.
This bittersweet drama from first time feature filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein (who hails from a background in short films and documentaries) takes us inside the rarely seen and insular world of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community of Borough Park, Brooklyn. The film gives us an insight into the cultures and traditions of this world that we rarely see depicted on the screen. There have been a few films dealing with the Jewish community of contemporary New York (such as The Chosen, Felix And Meira, Fill The Void, etc) but it is still a fairly alien world to us with its strict traditions, prayer meetings and dress codes.
This is a world that Weinstein obviously knows well, and he brings an intimate, almost documentary style to the material. He has shot the film over the course of two years in the part of Brooklyn that is home to the Hassidic community, which lends an authenticity to the film’s setting. Most of the cast are non-professionals drawn from within the community, many of whom have never seen a movie before. Much of the dialogue itself is delivered in Yiddish. There is a sparse score from Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist that adds to the melancholic tone.
Menashe has been co-written by Weinstein, his friend and first-time script writer Alex Lipschultz (a producer on documentaries such as Computer Chess, etc), and Musa Syeed (A Stray, etc), and draws heavily upon the life of its star for some of its narrative, which gives the material an added sense of truth and realism. The film explores some big universal themes of love, sacrifice, family, faith, grief, fatherhood, religion, patriarchal politics, and community. But the film is also tempered with generous doses of humour.