The premise for Menashe makes it seem like a typical underdog story. Set in a social pocket of modern Brooklyn, the film follows the unorthodox titular character looking to subvert the norms of his completely orthodox Jewish community. He’s a widower looking to raise his boy by himself – a total no-no in the faith’s eye. The Rabbi wants/needs him to remarry, but Menashe has no interest in the matchmaking process.
It’s easy to root for him at first, but it doesn’t take the film long to shake that support. A year without an old-fashioned housewife has turned Menashe into an untucked shirt of a man, capable (barely) of holding down a grocery store job but unable to do basic adult stuff like set an alarm clock or cook a simple meal. (The day he gets his son back from the salty brother-in-law, it’s cake and Coke for breakfast.)
Menashe wants to be a good single parent so badly, and his earnest intentions are sympathetic, but the film does a stupendously cruel job making you question if he ever could be. Perhaps he’s been pigeonholed too firmly by his religion. Perhaps he really is just that useless. The film doesn’t give straight answers, and it’s all the more thought-provoking for it. More importantly, it doesn’t put anyone under a looming shadow of shame which, for a film that observes a non-secular world, is an importantly non-judgemental touch.
Making his first foray into narrative film, documentary director Joshua Z Weinstein keeps things grounded with subdued performances and a visual style that feels typical of a seasoned documentarian. Partly based on the life of lead actor Menashe Lustig, it’s a sensible approach to take, though it’s Lustig who makes the most surprising debut. His occasional displays of warmth, determination, and pain puncture through a largely subdued performance. It comes from a real place, as does the sweet, string-filled, sorrowful score by From the Mouth of the Sun.