A father's love vs. his faith in heartwarming ‘Menashe’

Review • Drama set in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn has universal themes.

(Wehkamp Photography | courtesy A24 Films) Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a widower in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox community, battles to maintain custody of his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski), in the drama "Menashe."

It’s common to watch a movie and see a community that speaks another language and lives a culture different from yours. It’s rarer to see that community in the heart of New York City, self-contained and separated from the outside world, like the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where the gentle but moving drama “Menashe” sets itself.

Menashe Lustig plays the title character, a portly sad sack of a man — a schlemiel, as they say in Yiddish, which is the language everyone speaks in this movie. His wife, Leah, died a year ago after a long illness, and he fills his days working as a cashier at a grocery store, where his boss and customers complain about his tardiness, his work ethic and his sweaty shirts.

Menashe has one thing on his mind: getting back custody of his 10-year-old son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). He’s now living with Leah’s wealthy brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), because Eizik has a wife — and, the rabbi has declared, a boy needs a two-parent home. Menashe has been told he can get Rieven back as soon as he remarries.

Menashe is stubborn and determined to show Eizik and the rabbi that he can care for Rieven on his own. But even Rieven isn’t sure this is going to work.

Director Joshua Z. Weinstein, co-writing with Alex Lipschultz and Must Syeed, makes a sturdy feature debut. He keeps the story’s focus tight on Menashe, as he tries to make it through each day as he’s browbeaten by fate, finances and his less-than-forgiving neighbors. And Weinstein finds a sharp collaborator in Lustig, whose performance is so authentic one might mistake this movie for a documentary.

Certainly Weinstein captures the complex culture of this ultra-Orthodox community, where rabbinical dictates have the rule of law but are issued with compassion. That sense of a community, and how an oddball like Menashe learns to live within it, is what makes “Menashe” so fascinating and universal.

• • • 1/2<br>’Menashe’<br>A widower fights to keep custody of his son in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in this warm-hearted drama.<br>Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.<br>When • Opens Friday, Sept. 8.<br>Rating • PG for thematic elements.<br>Running time • 82 minutes.