A bustling New York City street hums at the start of Menashe, a sea of different lives moving independently, ready to become our story by catching the camera’s eye. It’s the titular grocery cashier, casually dressed by the standard of his Hassidic Jewish community, that sparks director Joshua Z. Weinstein’s eye.
His coatless, hatless frame is the first suggestion of his role as outsider to tradition, as is his timid and stifled sweet disposition. He’s a grieving widower, with his preteen son in the care of his brother-in-law until Menashe can remarry and provide the nuclear unit demanded by the doctrine. But in his humble pleading to care for his son without interference and attempts to memorialize his wife in ritual is the faintest quake of rebellion against stricture.
The quite familiar elements to this father-son story are given a much needed shot of specificity when set in this Hassidic New York environment. We have seen plenty of custody battle fathers who come up short despite their good intentions many times over, but not in this community. Rarely do we even get to see them tell this type of story.
The take Menashe provides on the Hassidic people it depicts isn’t inflammatory, but is not without its emotional and social complexity: their strict religious practice doesn’t bring justice to Menashe’s domestic life, nor does it set him up to succeed within its confines in a tangible way. To their point however, Menashe is his own worst enemy, a struggling father (and adult, really) by any estimation. Meanwhile, the city swirls around him with all its own indifferent microcosms, as much a part of his isolation as any distancing religious expectation.
But what lingers from the films beyond its touching honesty and unique setting is the bared soul of its lead performance. Menashe Lustig is a remarkable discovery, another in the tradition of comedy performers delivering a dramatic believability. In his sense of humor, he reveals an innate compulsion for approval – and when that fails, a survival instinct to simply get by. What is most heartbreaking in his performance is his urge to turn in on himself, to hide against the demands put on him, and his often physical inability to do so. It’s a graceful, unimposing performance that the entire film rests upon with ease.
Menashe is a delicate character study, one that could use even a slight bit more heft in its delivery to make it linger. But a remarkable central performance makes this film a thing of beauty.