Plenty of articles gave film critics hell when they did this with Moonlight last year, but it is worth repeating: Stop referring to films like Menashe as “universal.” All you do by claiming such films are “universal” is diminish their achievements. In the same fashion as Moonlight, Menashe is a great film precisely because it is not a universal story. Instead, documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein’s first ever narrative feature film is a truly unique tale.
I mostly blame laziness, but I am willing to concede there’s a chance so many critics claim that Menashe feels universal because, on a structural level, I guess it’s a fairly straightforward story about a grieving widower fighting to keep custody of his son. Menashe (played by Menashe Lustig in a semi-biographical role) is the resident putz in his extremely isolated Hasidic community in Brooklyn. Strict cultural traditions demand a mother in every home, and Menashe’s constant screw-ups certainly do not help build trust with the community. I am sure you already know the gist of Menashe’s story, but it’s the actual delivery that’s so enthralling.
Menashe is a narrative feature by a documentarian, and it definitely feels like it. It’s not just the handheld camerawork or the use of non-actors—always a risky move, but it works well here. What stands out here is Weinstein’s documentarian eye for authentic world-building. At a sleek 82-minutes, no screentime is wasted, as Menashe ingeniously uses every frame to progress its title character’s arc while relating it to the world around him. Menashe is one of the few American films ever performed in Yiddish. What’s even more interesting is how you slowly realize the characters actually speak a sort of Yiddish/English hybrid, a minor detail lesser filmmakers might ignore but Weinstein embraces it to make the film’s world that much richer.
The greatest nuance of Menashe is how it’s able to celebrate the beautiful, unique culture it explores while also thoughtfully criticizing it when it needs to. Menashe’s community is mostly loving, and he certainly loves it back, but even he recognizes the injustice of his situation. After all, the rabbi who wants to take Menashe’s son away doesn’t actually have any serious legal authority to do so. You’ll be so frustrated when you remember, “Oh yeah, Menashe doesn’t have to do anything these people say” and then immediately sympathize with his deep respect for his community’s traditions. It may only be a few blocks in a city of thousands, but the Hasidic community is Menashe’s world, and he wouldn’t trade it for any other.
As I write this, I’ve got an entire list of fascinating community quirks and customs revealed in Maneshe sitting next to me that I’d love to tell you about. However, another carryover from Weinstein’s documentarian days is creating a sense of discovery, and I don’t want to spoil the film. Yes, the basic plot might sound like a universal story, but the real meat of it is something we’ve never quite seen before. It all builds to outstanding final moment that’s my favorite scene this year, and it could only ever happen in this unique film. Menashe is one of the year’s best.
Grade = A