Director Joshua Z. Weinstein’s “Menashe” is a thoughtful musing on the meaning of culture and fatherhood, built around the story of a widower struggling to raise his only son.
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a Hasidic Jew living in a tight orthodox community in Brooklyn. It has been about a year since his wife, Leah, died, leaving him to raise their son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) on his own. In order to stay enrolled in his private school, Rieven has to be living in a two-parent home, so until Menashe can remarry, his son is living with Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his family.
Menashe is a soft-spoken man, but he is feeling the strain of his strict culture. Unlike the other men, he refuses to wear a hat and coat, and an early blind date shows us he isn’t all that interested in getting married again, at least any time soon. At the same time, Menashe is chronically late, and his job at the local grocer often leaves him working odd hours, so Rieven may actually be better off living with his uncle.
Weinstein’s film is very character-driven, but eventually “Menashe” settles into a plot built around a memorial dinner for Leah. The original plan was to have Eizik and his family host the dinner at their more traditional and established home, but Menashe wants to prove himself as a provider, so he insists that as her late husband, he should hold Leah’s memorial dinner in his modest apartment, with him handling all the cooking.
Menashe also convinces the local rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) to allow Rieven to stay with him for the week leading up to the memorial, with the understanding that Rieven will return to his uncle’s house afterward, per the original arrangement. What follows is a touching story about a man learning how to do what is best for his child.
On one level, “Menashe” is an interesting study of a tight-knit culture that will prompt audiences to consider their own backgrounds, religious or otherwise. It’s easy to look at Menashe and wonder about that delicate relationship between religious doctrine and the different cultures — and cultural standards — that are built up around it.
In spite of his own comparative orthodoxy, Menashe also feels like a stand-in for modern young adults, specifically those who struggle to embrace traditional roles as providers. Menashe doesn’t exactly aspire to play video games in his mother’s basement for the rest of his life, but his individual struggle feels like it’s in the same ballpark.
Ultimately, thanks to a sympathetic and nuanced performance from Lustig, Menashe offers a thoughtful portrait of the challenge of parenthood and the struggle to be a man and a father. Eizik is often critical and disrespectful of his brother-in-law, but he isn’t a bad guy. “Menashe” is a quiet and touching portrait of good but flawed people struggling to be what they truly aspire to be.
“Menashe” is presented in Yiddish with English subtitles.
“Menashe” is rated PG for thematic elements; running time: 82 minutes.