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Menashe film review: An empathetic gaze at the life of a misfit

Sarah Ward

Set within the Orthodox Jewish community, this insightful film proves naturalistic in its look and authentic in its emotions.
Menashe film review: An empathetic gaze at the life of a misfit

'All beginnings are hard,' Menashe (debutant Menashe Lustig) is told by his rabbi (fellow first-timer Meyer Schwartz). In the film that bears the widower’s name, they’re discussing the future that awaits him and his son. As a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn’s insular Borough Park neighbourhood, he’s bound by his religious teachings about proper conduct after the death of his wife. Remarriage is the only option, particularly if he wants to live with his pre-teen boy Rieven (Ruben Niborski), who is currently staying with Menashe’s strict brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus).

Again and again, Menashe, the movie, demonstrates the truth in the rabbi’s words; whenever Menashe, the man, tries to propel his new life forward, the outcome remains far from optimal. At his job as a supermarket cashier, he’s always falling foul of his boss. When he tries to spend time with Rieven, he’s scolded by Eizik for breaking their routine. Eizik is hosting the memorial ceremony Menashe feels should be his responsibility, though he’s constantly late, broke and being told he’s a disappointment to everyone around him. On the blind dates he’s continually encouraged to go on, he’s clearly uninterested and adrift — when one of his potential paramours asks him 'besides marriage and kids, what else is there?', he visibly disagrees.

What follows is a sea of potential new beginnings that frequently end in frustration for the mild-mannered protagonist, though not for the film itself. As Menashe’s opening moments make clear — with the feature training its gaze on a stretch of New York sidewalk, where its eponymous figure stands out from the rest of his Orthodox brethren due to his refusal to wear a coat and hat — watching Menashe proves easy, amiable and insightful. Filmed in secret within the close-knit community, and boasting an observational approach, naturalistic appearance, fly-on-the-wall feel and authentic air as a result, the movie glides on by with its touchingly bittersweet tenor.

Indeed, at the centre of Menashe sits a considerable achievement: a specific and intricate exploration of culture rarely seen on screen with such detail and candour, and yet one that is never anything less than universally resonant in its themes and feelings. Making his first fictional feature, documentarian and writer/director Joshua Z. Weinstein (Drivers Wanted) hones the movie’s focus while simultaneously ensuring its emotional reach extends far and wide. Much of Menashe’s life may seem far removed from that of the audience, but much echoes with familiarity, such as his juxtaposed desires to make his own decisions and still be embraced by his community, and his wish to be a good father even as he fails to meet his son’s expectations.

As part of the film’s careful tightrope walk, Weinstein, his co-writers Musa Syeed (A Stray) and Alex Lipschultz, and his Yiddish-speaking cast handle their task with the delicacy it deserves — coupled with disarming complexity as well. Menashe is called a schlimazel and more, but the movie doesn’t judge him, preferring to let the ebbs and flows of a single week of his existence say what needs to be heard. Anyone could share his general troubles, the film posits as it empathetically looks on. It’s a choice aided by Lustig’s unaffected, expressive, earnest performance, in a script loosely based on his own life. He’s playing a misfit in a regimented society, but he’s also playing anyone certain about what’s in their heart but conflicted about their path.  

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
USA, 2017, 82 mins

Release date: 8 February
Distributor: Rialto
Rated: PG

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay