We’ve all been where Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is. Menashe is going through just a little bit of turmoil. He’s a recent widower and a working father, and in his New York City Hasidic community, strict rules are enforced in these situations. The Talmud states that any good man should have “a good wife, a good home, and good dishes.” It also states that a man cannot raise a son without a spouse.
As such, his son is required to live with Menashe’s brother-in-law. This angers Menashe, who’s already an outcast in his Jewish community; his adherence to tradition isn’t as strong as his brethren. Pleading with his rabbi, he gets an exception and one week to prove how fit he is to raise his child alone, all while juggling his faith responsibilities and full-time job.
In all of its simplicity, Menashe is pretty fascinating movie. Suppose nothing less should be expected from the A24 studio, its successes over the years well documented. Another can be added to the list with Menashe, a unique look at a real-life world few people—at least myself—know about.
Menashe isn’t a documentary…but essentially, it may as well be. Without the subjects talking into a camera, director Joshua Z Weinstein still makes this as authentic as possible. For starters, the entire movie is performed in Yiddish, shot on location in the setting exhibited. And, no one that appears on screen is a trained actor. As an audience, we’re pretty much getting a legitimate portrayal of this Hasidic community within the confines of a movie. It isn’t so much directed by Weinstein as it is just shown in earnest.
Perhaps the biggest revelation, Menashe‘s plot is a loose real-life depiction of its titular character, played by Menashe Lustig. Despite the lack of knowledge many will have with this particular world, Menashe‘s story works predominately because it is one that many will be able to connect with; that black sheep feeling that can exist within our families, or the corporations we work for, or our communities. Menashe himself is all of us: Capable of a lot, yet capable of being his own worst enemy.
Credit to Weinstein, who doesn’t make his lead character infallible. In fact, as the film goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that Menashe may not be the guy he thinks he is, and seeing him wrestle with this fact is the heart of the movie. For a non-actor essentially carrying the movie, Menashe Lustig’s performance is honest, occasionally humorous (intentionally) and understated. At 81 minutes, Menashe doesn’t stretch itself out needlessly to fill time. This is a singular focused production on one character telling a specific story in a defined timeframe. I wish, however, that more time could have been given for a real moving ending. As it stands, the film kind of peters out in the last 15 or so minutes.
Perhaps the fashion in how Menashe wraps up is the ultimate point. Life just goes on. Maybe we’re learn from our deficiencies and improve upon them, or learn to accept them and the resulting consequences. It’s simple reality.
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