Menashe Lustig, Ruben Nyborg DIRECTED BY
Joshua Z. Weinstein SCREENPLAY
Joshua Z. Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, and Musa Syeed MPAA RATING
Rated PG RUNNING TIME
82 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY
A24 Films OFFICIAL WEBSITE
I will admit that on more than one occasion while watching Menashe that I found myself thinking about the Sean Penn-led film I Am Sam, a flawed yet impactful drama about a father with an intellectual disability fighting for the right to raise his own daughter. Menashe (Menashe Lustig), the title character in the film of the same name, doesn't have an intellectual disability but he is a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn who struggles with a faith that requires he relinquish custody of his son (Ruben Nyborg) when he unexpectedly becomes a widow.
The first narrative feature for Joshua Z. Weinstein, up to now a documentarian, Menashe possesses a doc feeling to it as it tells the story of Menashe, inspired by Lustig's own experiences and often shot secretly in Hasidic neighborhoods. The Menashe in Menashe is a hapless grocery clerk, the kind of father whom it is easy to believe would actually have to fight to retain custody of his child as he's often late to vital importants, frequently screws up at work, drinks a bit too much, and often seems to pale in comparison to the aunt and uncle whom the rabbi has ordered the son to live with until Menashe is able to remarry.
Menashe was filmed in Yiddish, another simple yet marvelous stroke of authenticity, and Weinstein's decision to make the film utilizing non-actors has given it this wonderfully natural aura that makes us feel like we're seeing a part of the Hasidic life seldom, if ever, captured on the big screen. Lustig's performance is quietly appealing, though he's wisely not ever a man we're completely sympathetic with as it's nearly impossible to not reach the conclusion that, just perhaps, Menashe genuinely is ill-equipped for being a single parent and, despite the idea of such a strict edict feeling almost bizarre in a nation filled to the brim with single parents, the rabbi's directions may truly be in the best interest of the child.
Menashe is an easygoing, heartfelt comedy held together by a thread of tenderness that stretches throughout the nearly 90-minute film. It's rather extraordinary to see such a wonderful man also be such a wonderful screw-up in a culture that is seldom portrayed for the fullness of its humanity on screen. You may not always like the man Menashe, but the odds are pretty strong that you'll find yourself constantly rooting for him even as an undercurrent of resignation plays throughout the film. Weinstein doesn't force greeting card happy endings on us, but instead crafts a story that examines faith, the difficulties of parenting, and authentic understanding.