For a secular, independent, and preternaturally skeptical viewer, there’s a single correct course of action for Menashe. If he’s not going to take it, then the film needs to do a lot of work to sell the value of him sticking around and not simply leaving with Rieven. Weinstein embedded himself in a Brooklyn Hasidic community for years to make Menashe, and based on what he chose to include as background detail, it’s filled with girls who aren’t allowed to go to college and women who function solely as baby-making machines. Menashe’s marriage, never healthy thanks to its arranged nature, demanded children, so his wife took risky fertility treatments that led to her death. Weinstein depicts these social constraints and neglects to show any benefits, possibly because there’s no way to do so that’s not at the expense of the Hasidic women. What value is a cheerful scene of males-only camaraderie when next door, an 18 year old girl is being locked into a marriage?
Further complicating the struggles at the heart of Menashe is the lead’s considerable failures as a father and provider. What Eizik and the other Hasids have correct is that Menashe would have a very difficult time raising his son on his own. A one-room apartment is paid for by a menial job at a grocer and begrudging handouts from Eizik. His grooming is nonexistent. When Rieven does spend time with his father, it’s cake for breakfast and first aid for dinner, on account of poorly hung pictures on the wall. The film sees Menashe as clearly as it sees the Hasidim, but, perhaps in a desire to stick with Lustig’s life, it can’t imagine a way forward that doesn’t involve them.
Menashe is an elemental story of fatherhood built around a complicated and complex community, and Weinstein does a good job of placing the former squarely within the latter. It’s also a film that could only exist from the perspective that it does. There’s no equivalent film called Esther, wherein a widowed Hasidic woman forces herself to get married so she can be reunited with her child. That would be an impossible level of submission to stomach, and it’s a counter-factual that lingers over Menashe. Weinstein is originally a documentarian and this is his first feature. It’s easier for a nonfiction film to sit back and observe without judgment, but it’s next to impossible for a feature to do the same. Here, judgment is unavoidable and it doesn’t land in Menashe’s favor. C+