Residents of southwest Brooklyn's Borough Park are predominantly Orthodox Jews, whose 18th century traditions still govern everything from custody disputes to attire.
In "Menashe," filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein turns his camera on this community, using non-actors to create a tender portrait of family. At the film's moving core is a loving father struggling to negotiate the gap between community expectations and self-determination.
The title character (played by real-life grocer Menashe Lustig) is a gregarious, oafish type who can't catch a break. After his wife, Leah, died, his young son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), goes to live with Leah's brother Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus). In Hasidic culture, a home is incomplete without a woman. The arrangement will continue until Menashe finds a second wife.
He's in no rush. Although the extent of his grief is unclear, his peers increasingly see him as a loser. In frustration, Menashe announces he wants to raise Rieven on his own. When the rabbi sanctions his decision, albeit temporarily, Menashe aims to prove himself by hosting Leah's memorial.
Weinstein ingratiated himself, donning a yarmulke and spending time in apartments and at parties and religious gatherings. Menashe stood out, and the film is based on his experience as a widower.
"Menashe" mixes natural light and hand-held camerawork with unexpected human drama. Weinstein got his start on documentaries, and that is an asset here: Many scenes capture meaning in the routine, whether how Menashe gets ready for bed or how he participates in community prayer. The film doesn't burrow into tenets of Jewish dogma. Tradition and ritual interest Weinstein, as does the suggestion that Menashe might be more modern - and secular - than his peers.
Although one character discusses the depravity of gentiles, Weinstein and co-screenwriters Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed don't judge. In one gently comic scene, Menashe goes through the motions of a date, barely hiding his disinterest when his companion says women shouldn't be allowed to drive.
Weinstein finds common ground on both sides of the religious divide. Menashe's boss is a pain, and so is his brother-in-law. Menashe worries about his son, and he has too much pride to ask for help.
These are universal problems, filmed without melodrama. Many characters keep their feelings buried, engaging in tribal gossip to mask what they think. The Yiddish language barrier that most viewers will face also adds mystery, because the characters sometimes seem to be saying more than the subtitles convey.
In an NPR interview, Weinstein said Menashe had never been inside a movie theater until the film's Sundance premier. The actor's separation from contemporary Western culture lends his character a unique presence. "Menashe" strikes complex notes without telegraphing how the audience should feel.
There's an odd freedom to this kind of storytelling, even if the community's gender inequality grows more glaring as the movie goes on. (No women are at Leah's memorial.) Critiquing this community, however, would undermine Weinstein's greater purpose.
Menashe has little desire to leave the Orthodox world. But if you were to chat with him over a beer, you might find an easygoing rapport that would surprise you.