The British playwright Alan Bennett once remarked that people are more interesting when they are trying to be good than when they are being bad. That's certainly true of Menashe, a recently widowed Orthodox Jew struggling to raise his young son alone in a Hasidic enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Though he can be a religious dogmatist when it comes to others, Menashe errs abundantly himself and complains routinely in Rodney Dangerfield mode, which sounds funnier in Yiddish. At times he seems to enjoy more fellow-feeling with the Latino workers at the grocery story where he works than with his fellow Jews.
This extravagantly fractious fellow is played, in Joshua Z. Weinstein's sensitive drama Menashe, by Menashe Lustig, a Hasid who has never acted but whose comedic YouTube videos have enjoyed some public success. The movie is based on events in Lustig's life, and he's very good at playing an approximation of himself, by turns defensive, hostile, pleading, sweatily anxious — and around his child, all kinds of fun. Menashe is a big kid himself, and in the daily run of things, he probably gets more wrong than most. His failings are commonplace, yet potentially profound in their consequences, especially for his son Rieven. The child is played by Ruben Niborski, a mischievous Israeli sprite with a melancholy Modigliani face, who bottles the confusion of a child who adores his father, yet feels unsafe in his chaotic orbit.
We meet Menashe flouting rabbinic authority by refusing to cede Rieven's daily care to his sister and her husband. Truth to tell, Rieven's uncle (Yoel Weisshaus) is a bit of a stiff, but he can offer routine and stability. The rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) gives his unruly congregant a week to prove he can take care of his son. Menashe's parenting skills are all over the map and he has an alarmingly tin ear for his son's grief and bewilderment. But he's also the kind of father for whom happiness is making his son giggle and watching him sleep.
Menashe is full of lovely grace notes in which nothing much happens, but which deepen our understanding of this self-segregated corner of the world. A documentary filmmaker, Weinstein brings to his first narrative fiction an anthropologist's eagle eye for the layered complexities of set-apart subcultures. He honors the cadences and rhythms of this community, its joy in ritual and ecstatic singing. The dialogue is almost all in Yiddish, and Menashe's Herculean struggle for control over his life is broken by leisurely street shots of Hasidim going about their business accompanied by a sweet, subtly melancholy score.
Menashe is not the first movie to try to understand this arcane world without rendering it quaintly exotic or passing glib secular judgment. But where Rama Burshtein's recent films Fill the Void and The Wedding Plan actively made the case for Ultra-Orthodoxy, Menashe takes a more ethnographic, if warmly sympathetic view — teasing out, then braiding together the intricate threads of discipline and support in a society that makes its own rules. Weinstein doesn't slide past for the sect's distaste for the world outside. ("Broken homes in a broken society," sniffs Menashe's brother-in-law). Yet he's at pains to underline the intelligent humanity of the rabbi, an authority figure who shows himself flexible and inclined to play to the strengths of his community's squarest peg.
Near the end of Menashe, a late-breaking secret offers us a clue both to Menashe's disarray and his desire to make amends and show competence. Never more hapless than when he's trying to do things by the book, Menashe seems to screw up yet again. So it's only right and proper that a sweetly funny yet moving eleventh-hour sequence will conditionally settle his fate and that of his son, by way of a spectacularly burned kugel.