Menashe Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus. Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein. Rated PG. Opens Friday at Village Square.
Filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein has spent most of his career making documentaries, and his debut narrative feature, Menashe, often feels like a documentary, the product of Weinstein finding himself in the right place at the right time to capture the way life is lived in the ultra-religious Hasidic Jewish enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Although the movie is scripted, it stars real-life members of the community, with dialogue almost entirely in Yiddish, and is based partially on the life of star Menashe Lustig. Lustig’s title character is a hapless grocery-store clerk and a recent widower, who’s lost custody of his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) thanks to Hasidic laws that require children to be raised in two-parent homes.
Menashe’s struggle to get his son back is a bit repetitive, but the movie is such an immersive portrayal of an insular world rarely seen onscreen that the thin story isn’t a major problem. Lustig gives a winning performance, even if Menashe is hard to sympathize with at times. Shooting (often surreptitiously) in real locations in the Hasidic community, Weinstein brings an authenticity and immediacy to the story, with documentary-style hand-held camera work and low-key, naturalistic performances. The story peters out before it reaches any kind of resolution, but that demonstrates how in such a traditional, rule-bound community, even the smallest change is almost impossible.