Menashe opens with a long shot of a bustling New York City street, where the titular character unceremoniously emerges from the ample crowds, then eighty minutes later, closes with him disappearing back into the same crowded streets. As simplistic as it may seem, this visual motif that bookmarks director Joshua Z Weinstein’s film actually carries an unassuming grace - this is a character study of a regular man, who could be any face in the crowd, and Weinstein manages to craft a delicate drama purely out of one man’s impeccably ordinary life. It’s a deeply gentle film, that feels human and deeply insightful. Unfortunately, this small scale approach does mean that its hard to view the film as being anything other than slight.
Menashe Lustig stars in the titular role as a recently widowed father, who is currently attempting to regain custody of his ten-year-old son (Ruben Niborksi), which his rabbi has told him is impossible unless he remarries, to create a proper homely environment for him. He is generally downtrodden; he works a grocery store job he hates for a boss who doesn’t hide his disdain, he has disagreements with his in-laws, and disregards several of the social customs associated with the Orthodox community.
Although he isn’t one of the three credited screenwriters, the film is loosely based on Lustig’s own life and filmed by Weinstein in documentary style over the course of two years in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighbourhood. The film feels achingly real because of this, all anchored in a small scale drama so universally empathetic, it transcends the initial cultural barrier this setting may initially put in place. More impressively, the film manages to feel gentle even as it documents the hardships Menashe is facing in his life. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a blessing or a curse; on the plus side, the commitment to realism means never forcing a heightened dramatic arc, but on the downside, the film’s unassuming nature fails to generate the dramatic conflict needed to sustain an intimate domestic drama in this vein.
There’s no denying the film’s authenticity, especially when portraying several Orthodox Jewish traditions. Even as it prominently features these moments, there is still an understated nature that’s of a piece with the rest of the film - they are presented in a manner that doesn’t seek to amplify any disconnect from the wider audience, while still satisfying those curious enough to see the customs of an alien culture hiding in plain sight. However, this doesn’t ever amount to adding any new insights on top of an overly familiar domestic drama. It’s a film that is easy to appreciate on paper - yet in actuality, the ordinary nature of the character’s domestic squabbles (when the religious/cultural aspect isn’t taken to account) helps make for a film that does occasionally feel stiflingly dull.
It’s surprising that the film has three credited screenwriters (a Menashe-a-Trois, if you will), especially when considering the film’s overly familiar narrative and naturalistic dialogue. It’s a credit to the film to describe its borderline verité style as not feeling remotely “written”- everything in the film feels as mundane as real life, defined by a series of small but crushing disappointments instead of all encompassing drama. Yet the dedication to depicting a realist story on this scale doesn’t translate into a particularly gripping film; even at a brisk 82 minutes, it feels unnecessarily stretched out.
Menashe is released on December 8th.