Joshua Z. Weinstein’s funny, heartbreaking, impeccably observed, and nearly flawless drama “Menashe” opens on a crowded street in the Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where all the men go about their business, cellphones to their ears, pristinely garbed in black suits, white shirts, and black hats.
Only one stands out, the grocery store clerk of the title (Menashe Lustig, in a nuanced portrayal of good intentions undermined by fecklessness and misfortune); hatless, coatless, portly, and disheveled, he’s a slob.
He’s also a widower who’s been denied custody of his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski, who delivers one of the best child performances of the year), by the rabbi, or “Ruv” (Meyer Schwartz, bringing depth to a role that can easily sink into stereotype), until he remarries. Meanwhile, the boy has been placed with the family of Menashe’s brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), a forbidding figure with long, black hair and an intimidating beard that makes him look like a solemn version of Leon Russell from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
Eizik holds Menashe in contempt. “You have no respect for yourself. Why should I have respect for you?” Most people seem to agree.
Even his son has his doubts. Though he likes it when his father takes him to his workplace and they play hide and seek in a storeroom smelling of gefilte fish, he is annoyed with his limited resources and distressed when he must hang around as Menashe sings and gets drunk with cronies. Eizik might be strict and narrow-minded, but he does offer security, and probably a full refrigerator.
Determined to regain the community’s respect and prove that he is a responsible person capable of raising his son on his own, Menashe declares that his wife’s upcoming memorial will take place at his apartment. His preparations are earnest, desperate, sad, and seemingly doomed to fail.
Weinstein brings a palpable authenticity (attributable in part to a cast made up of local non-actors) to this universally resonant story, rendering it unique and specific in a meticulously detailed setting. Never heavy-handed, he uses subtle effects to make a point. The “respectable” places, such as Eizik’s home and the Ruv’s office, are shot in a rich palette of reddish browns and golds, but Menashe’s sorry apartment is shot in flat, lifeless blues and grays. He is on the outside looking in at a world of warmth, comfort, and riches.
Though taking place in the rarefied confines of a Hasidic community, the theme of Menashe’s story is common to that of many genre films — the plight of an individual torn between conformity and independence. When the opening scene is returned to at the end but with significant changes, Menashe has gained something precious, but at the expense of something essential.
Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein. Written by Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, and Musa Syeed. Starring Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus, Meyer Schwartz. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 82 minutes. PG (thematic elements). In Yiddish and Spanish, with subtitles.