by Toby Woollaston

menasheFor most, the unfamiliar backdrop of Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community might not be the first place you’d look for a universally affective father and son tale. In his first narrative feature, director Joshua Z Weinstein has thoughtfully married together culture, religion, and the universal themes of parenthood in this gently observational and heartfelt film.

Newcomer, Menashe Lustig plays the titular Menashe, a widower who works for a merciless boss at the local grocery store. Striving for independence, Menashe struggles to hold down a full-time job whilst caring for his nine-year-old son (played by Ruben Niborski), much to the umbrage of his late wife’s brother. Resentful, and desperate to prove his independence and capabilities as a father, he eschews the increasing pressure from his community to remarry. Much of the film’s nexus revolves around preparations for his wife’s memorial and Menashe’s defiant efforts to put his best foot forward for both his son’s and his own sake. 

Given his penchant for making documentaries, it is no surprise that Weinstein has settled on a social realist approach, opting to present a side of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community that feels honest and authentic. The film, for the most part, is spoken in Yiddish—a curious decision given that Weinstein doesn’t speak the language himself. Instead, he employed a translator on set thus positioning himself in similar circumstances to the majority of his audience—a masterstroke that has helped facilitate the oft-awkward subtitle conundrum.  That Weinstein is also a gifted cinematographer is a testament to the film’s wonderful visual texture. Bathing scenes in a deliciously golden light, Weinstein’s lens beautifully paints the rich flavours of a Jewish Brooklyn, and like its protagonist seeks out warmth and happiness.

Menashe credits its audience with enough tenacity and intelligence to dig beneath its gentle nature and ascribe meaning to the film’s subtle gestures.  And dig you should, because underneath its amiable surface is a film that packs plenty of hutzpah.

Read the full review for the NZ Herald here.