“Menashe” is as much about the closed world inhabited by its title character as it is about the man himself. That world is the Hasidic community of Brooklyn’s Borough Park, and Menashe either is or is not a “schlimazel” — a victim of persistent bad luck — which his antagonistic brother-in-law calls him.
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a roly-poly single father working a menial job at a local market for an unsympathetic boss. He’s a pious man but has run afoul of his ultra-orthodox family and neighbors because he has been a widower for a year and it’s not right for a single man to raise a child. The boy (Ruben Niborski) lives with the brother-in-law, Eizek (Yoel Weisshaus), a stiff-necked man with little patience for Menashe.
Menashe lives in a crummy apartment and has the general demeanor of what some people would term a loser. But he deeply loves his son — although, when he feeds him old cake and soda pop during a visit, you get a hint of why single parenthood may be discouraged. Still, Menashe thinks that Eizek is too strict, preferring a more loosey-goosey parenting style, which doesn’t sit well with the community and could result in the boy’s expulsion from school.
It’s a mild, melancholy tale, though punctuated with some comedy, and your heart goes out to Menashe, who, for all his shortcomings — including eruptions of bad temper — just wants what’s best for his kid. That leads him to consult a matchmaker and undertake a few dates, the results of which are not encouraging, as Menashe is, to be honest, far from sterling husband material.
In a bid to establish his credibility, Menashe insists that he will host the one-year memorial for his late wife, an event Eizek was planning to stage. It’s his way of proving his competence to the brother-in-law, and bolstering his case by making a good impression on the rabbi (Meyer Schwartz), whom he deeply respects, and other influential men.
Lustig is a Hasidic actor and comedian whose comic shorts can be seen on YouTube. The film’s story is said to be partially autobiographical, which is probably part of the reason that his work here seems heartfelt — his character hasn’t got his life together by any means, but in his own way is a righteous fellow.
Director Joshua Z. Weinstein, who also wrote the movie with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, is clearly as interested in the dynamics of the Hasidic community as he is in Menashe himself. This is Weinstein’s first dramatic feature; he’s been a documentarian, and that comes through in his ability to show Menashe in the context of his world.
“Menashe” is a convincing portrayal of that world, a piece of genuinely immersive filmmaking.