Movie review: 'Menashe' takes a voyeuristic plunge into ultra-orthodox Judaism

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski Photo by Federica Valabrega, courtesy of A24

We know the eponymous Menashe is different from other Hasidim the moment we see him: He doesn’t wear a hat or a coat.

The difference is subtle, but as the protagonist emerges from a crowd of fully garbed men strolling the sidewalk of Brooklyn’s Borough Park, his dress serves as an instant signifier of both his character and the holistic restraint that will permeate the film to come.

Though it was filmed in a real ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York, Menashe feels like a glance into another world. Many viewers, as outsiders both religiously and geographically, will find the movie fascinating purely for how it illuminates such a divergent way of “typical American life.” Menashe is almost entirely in Yiddish, and the cast is made up of mostly non-actors, establishing an authenticity that places the film somewhere between a narrative and a documentary.

Bolstering this sense of realism is director Joshua Z Weinstein’s documentarian background and a plot based on lead actor Menashe Lustig’s actual life experiences. When Menashe’s wife died, his son was sent to live with his uncle, as tradition forbids Menashe from living with his son until he finds a new spouse. Though he loves his son, Menashe is unwilling to rush into another marriage.

Further complicating matters is Menashe’s role as your prototypical schlimazel: screwing up at his job as a grocery store clerk, feeding his son cake and pop when he realizes he has nothing else for breakfast, burning bachelor-proof kugel. At his core, though, Menashe wants to be a good man, and Lustig conveys both the desires and the sadness of his dramatized self with the skill of a veteran actor. As he intimates to his brother-in-law, he’s trying to improve, and despite his shortcomings as a father, his son serves as a driving force behind his ambitions and his compromises.

Weinstein captures his subject here from the same distances as he would in an actual documentary, and the overall feel is voyeuristic and without commentary. Weinstein lets Menashe’s struggles unfold naturally. But while verisimilitude is Menashe’s standout quality, it can hold the film back at times. In being so true-to-life, there’s little surprise as to how things proceed, and relatively few high or low notes. We ride along somewhere in limbo, detached observers never really pulled fully into one emotion or another. Having the luxury of fiction at his disposal, it would have been beneficial to see Weinstein use some extremity in any direction. Yet perhaps that would have undermined the reserved tone underlying the movie.

Ultimately, it’s a minor issue. The film may underperform in a strict dramatic framework, but it’s worth seeing for the perspective, if nothing else. Menashe comes via A24 (Moonlight, Room, A Ghost Story), and given the company’s propensity for backing cool and differential stories, you know you’re walking into something atypical. While it’s no Moonlight, Menashe manages to create something new out of an old tradition.

Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Starring: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski
Rated: PG
Theater: Starts Friday, Edina Cinema