Menashe is a formulaic story with a twist

Minor-key drama was shot clandestinely in Brooklyn’s cloistered Hasidic community

MENASHE (Joshua Z Weinstein). 82 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (August 11). See listing. Rating: NNN

The distributors of Menashe would like you to know that Joshua Z Weinstein’s feature debut – a minor-key drama set in Brooklyn’s notoriously cloistered Hasidic community, and performed almost entirely in Yiddish – was shot clandestinely, with the actors moving through real locations amongst ultra-orthodox Jews unaware of the project. 

They would like you to know this because it’s essential to selling the movie: the secret production gimmick dresses up a worthwhile but utterly generic story of a widower (Menashe Lustig) struggling to retain custody of his young son. If you didn’t know how hard it was to shoot certain exterior scenes, would you appreciate the movie as much? (I would hope the movie could stand on its own, but I guess that’s why I don’t work in marketing.)

The choices in Menashe make a little more sense once you learn that Weinstein is a longtime documentary cinematographer. His inclination is environmental, leaning heavily on long takes and tight close-ups of his protagonist, a well-meaning but fumbling clerk at a kosher market described by several people as a schlimazel. (The old joke is that a schlemiel is the guy who spills the soup, while the schlimazel is the guy who has soup spilled on him.)

Our first impulse is to assume Menashe has sunken into a depression after his wife’s death, but the more time we spend with him the more we understand he was adrift well before his bereavement. He loves his boy (Ruben Niborski) but clearly can’t provide for him, and he’s constantly at odds with his judgmental brother-in-law (Yoel Weisshaus) and screwing up at work. He has a good heart, but is righteous intent enough?  

The formulaic narrative is made unpredictable by the authentic surroundings and the potential complications of religion. But it’s still formulaic, with Weinstein either unable or unwilling to capitalize on the hints of deeper complexity in Lustig’s performance. 

About an hour in, I found myself wondering what the Dardenne brothers might have done with this story, with its roots in economic anxiety and parental dedication. I’m pretty sure they would have done more.

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