A film like Menashe requires an open mind. The Hasidic Jewish lifestyle and faith has layers, which are attempted to be peeled back in this film. Director Joshua Z Weinstein, before Menashe, filled his resume with documentaries and short films, which explains the barebones approach to this tale of a widower with only a week to spare with his son in Brooklyn.
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) lives a very blue-collar life that is borderline depressing in moments. He is father to his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), and a widower after his late wife, Leah, died very recently. The story picks up inside the supermarket where Menashe works.
Very quickly do I see a man who is dealing with sadness and a hole in his heart. There’s a sad demeanor on the face of Menashe while a Jewish mother and her large family runs rampant up and down the aisles before checking out. The film works fine in small spaces, and I mean that literally. There’s never a moment where the film pulls away and gives a sense scale within this large New York neighborhood. Another technical note: during many moments, Menashe was shot in natural lighting by director of photography Yoni Brook, almost through a filter. The film in and of itself feels documentary-style, and it makes sense with Weinstein‘s past work.
Menashe was granted one week by the town’s rabbi to spend with his son. Why? Well, in a Hasidic Jewish household, a child must be raised with their mother present. Menashe pleads with the rabbi throughout the film for allowance to raise Rieven on his own, but it’s not permitted. Instead, his unnecessarily rude brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), raises the boy in their household, where Rieven says he hates living.
Eizik is the clear antagonist, and, whether this was the job of Menashe, his actions coupled with others’ made me feel opposed to many of the Hasidic Jewish values. This isn’t me being close-minded to other faiths and traditions, but a community that boasts family-oriented values practically gave up and mocked Menashe. It’s brutal.
Menashe clearly does not agree with most of the Hasidic Jewish laws, and at one point purposefully has his son read a more cheerful story at school in spite of the melancholy tale the other students were instructed to read. Although, Menashe couldn’t disagree enough with the laws to literally take his son out of the community and move on their own.
The film, again, is very barebones and without much filler. However, I feel the short runtime might’ve hurt this one. The narrative felt incomplete, not coming full circle in the slightest. There’s hardly an arc to any of the characters, including Menashe, which hurt my connection to the cast. At the end of an hour and 22 minutes, I left asking, “Who grew over the course of our story, and did I feel anything?” The answer to both is nobody, really, and not so much.
Weinstein tried to jam a bit of symbolism towards the latter half of the film, with a baby chick representing life and death and Menashe fully engulfing his body under water to symbolize rebirth. This succeeded only in trying to add an artistic touch. Again, nothing too dramatic about these additives.
An interesting fact told to our audience at the conclusion of the film by a local rabbi was that this is Menashe Lustig‘s debut role as an actor, that he made comedic YouTube videos. I think this explains the inability of Lusting to draw me in completely during moments that should have been the peak of this film. In fact, this is the first time for many cast members, including Yoel Weisshaus.
Speaking of peak moments, the film’s highlight truly is the week Menashe and Rieven spent together. Sadly, the film rushes through its crescendo and fails to leave a lasting impression on what could have put the film over the top. Writers Alex Lipschultz and Weinstein, himself, felt it necessary to focus more on Menashe rather than expound upon the emotional tension between him and his son. Heck, even Eizik — a most unpleasant person by his actions and someone who told Rieven, who just got done spending time with his father, “You think this is a free world?!” — was given more attention.
While not a terrible way to spend almost an hour and a half — even if it’s the weakest A24 film I’ve seen to-date — Menashe grabs you for its opening sequence, but fails to finish and capitalize on its most enthralling moment, leaving me wondering what could have been.
I attended a screening of ‘Menashe’ thanks to Allied Integrated Marketing and A24. ❤
‘Menashe’ premieres in local South Florida theaters on Aug. 18, 2017 and is rated PG.