To be completely honest, whenever I attend a film festival, I usually don’t have the highest of expectations when walking into some of the movies being shown there. For the most part, a lot of them are from first-time filmmakers who are fresh out of school and looking to sell their movie to potential distributors. However, that certainly isn’t the case with Menashe, which I was lucky enough to catch at the 17th edition of the Phoenix Film Festival this past weekend.
Menashe, which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and was acquired by A24, the indie studio behind the likes of best picture-winner Moonlight and fellow hits such as The Witch, Ex Machina, and Green Room, tells the story of a grocery store clerk who is desperate to maintain the custody of his son Rieven after his wife passes away. Sure, you’re probably thinking, “we’ve seen that story a thousand times in other movies.” But Menashe is something different, and much more special.
Joshua Z. Weinstein, who also co-wrote Menashe with Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, took to the New York Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to give this unique father-son tale an authentic glimpse into the lives of these ultra-Orthodox jews who, seemingly, live in a much different world from our own. Their tradition-bound culture clearly states that a mother must be present in every home and, with that, Rieven is due to be adopted by his strict, married uncle, who does not have much respect for Menashe and believes that he never properly cared for his wife or his son.
Thankfully, for Menashe, the local Rabbi is generous enough to give our main character a chance to spend just one week with Rieven before the memorial for his wife which will be held in Menashe’s small, yet somewhat cozy-looking apartment that is complete with two beds and a small kitchen, as well as a tiny box which serves as a tiny little home to a chick he gifts to his son early on in the movie. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that, without his son, Menashe practically has nothing in his life.
Menashe’s dead-end job pays next to nothing while his harsh manager lectures him about forgetting to mop up the floors at the end of the night, and things only get worse when he destroys $1,000 worth of fish during a delivery after the doors of his van fly open. Despite the incident, Menashe still builds up enough courage to ask his boss for a loan for his wife’s memorial, to which his superior responds with a number of vicious remarks that ultimately send him on his way back home empty-handed.
One of the first films to be performed entirely in Yiddish in nearly 70 years, except for one brief scene where Menashe decides to down a 40oz bottle of Malt Liquor with his Puerto Rican co-workers in the stock room of the grocery store, Menashe certainly isn’t your typical father-son tale. In the beginning of the film, we get the sense that, while Rieven loves his father, their relationship isn’t on the best of terms since the death of Menashe’s wife. There’s no hostility, but something isn’t right, especially when Menashe comes to pick up his son from school and Rieven refuses to get into the vehicle until his father offers him a gift.
Throughout the story, we see the relationship between Menashe and Rieven blossom into a warm, loving relationship while light is finally shed on a notoriously private community where smartphones and televisions are practically non-existent. It’s authentic in the sense that we see how these people live their lives from day to day whether it’s spent praying, drinking, or working a dead-end job with an asshole manager. For 81-minutes, it truly feels as if you’re living in the New York Hasidic community—Weinstein perfectly captures that world in a way that has never been done before.
Menashe shows a way of life that is so different from our own, yet, somehow makes itself relatable in terms of family, community, and connection.