'Minyan': Film Review | Berlin 2020

MINYAN - Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival - H 2020
Courtesy of AgX
Somber and affecting.

Samuel H. Levine plays a gay Brooklyn teenager navigating the conflicts of sexual discovery with his cultural background in a Russian Jewish community in Eric Steel's layered drama set in 1980s New York.

Documentary maker Eric Steel interweaves multiple threads with admirable skill and balance in his engrossing narrative feature debut, Minyan. Samuel H. Levine, who has turned heads this season on Broadway as one of the leads in the two-part play The Inheritance, brings sensitivity, heart and questioning intelligence to the central role of David, the 17-year-old gay son of a Russian Jewish family in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in the 1980s. The shadow of AIDS looms as he explores his sexuality, while religious tradition, immigrant isolation and community expectations all weigh on his search for identity in a minor-key drama observed with a lucid but compassionate gaze.

Premiering in the Berlinale's Panorama section, which has long provided a window for new queer cinema, Minyan may be a tad too unhurried in its early going and muted in its emotional payoff to secure much theatrical play. But its vividly drawn milieu, complex characters and textured performances should land the well-crafted indie on streaming platforms.

Steel co-wrote the film with screenwriter Daniel Pearle (A Kid Like Jake), based on a short story by Latvian Canadian writer David Bezmozgis. The director shows an assured hand working with his actors, many of them from New York theater backgrounds. He also benefits from strong collaborations with composers David Krakauer and Kathleen Tagg, whose score brings rich cultural specificity, and with accomplished cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (Judy), who shoots the film in wintry tones that in retrospect feel almost like black and white.

The very first widescreen frame locates David within an establishing tableau, conveying instantly how much community, family and prayer define the young man's life. David's newly widowed grandfather Josef (Ron Rifkin) is a beloved mentor to whom David feels closer than he does to his parents Rachel (Brooke Bloom) and Simon (Gera Sandler). His mother was a dentist back in Russia, reduced to working as a receptionist in Brooklyn and only seeing patients on the side, while his hard-ass father has gone from being a boxing coach to a physical therapist.

David's mother opposes his wish to assimilate by attending a public school, telling him: "In Jewish school, no one can beat you for being a Jew." She's also against his desire to move out and live with Josef. He siphons off vodka from his parents' supply to swig from a flask while he's out with his buddies from Hebrew school, but as they pair off with their girlfriends, he's left alone.

David accompanies his grandfather to meet Zalman (Richard Topol), a rabbi in control of who gets each coveted vacancy in a subsidized housing block, and he involuntarily helps secure the old man's new apartment when Josef commits both of them to make up the quorum required for a Jewish prayer circle, or "minyan." David also meets two elderly men living together in the building since the death of their wives: Herschel (Christopher McCann) and Itzik (Mark Margolis), the former an intellectual, the latter an ex-soldier who survived the Russian labor camps but is slowly succumbing to chronic illness.

There's a lovely, melancholy economy in the way David establishes a bond with these two men, who clearly are a couple even if the community chooses to see them as roommates for the sake of practicality. At the same time, David finds more carnal outlets for his sexuality, cruising parks or the local library, and his curiosity eventually outweighs his fear as he enters an East Village gay bar for the first time.

Chris Perfetti is acerbically amusing as an habitué who gives the newcomer a warmish welcome, but David's attention is consumed by bartender Bruno (Alex Hurt), a taciturn hunk who reads Giovanni's Room in between pouring drinks. The tentative development of a relationship between them hits a bump, however, when David's ignorance of the escalating HIV/AIDS crisis comes to light.

Steel and Pearle's script perhaps borders on the schematic by having David also studying James Baldwin at school, but the film is effective at showing the multiple influences — including his African American teacher (Chinaza Uche) — that help shape the protagonist's ideas on manhood, masculinity, sexuality and outsider identity. After its slow start, Minyan becomes progressively more absorbing, its gritty visuals conveying soulful intimacy, accented with occasional understated touches of wry humor.

The cast is uniformly good, particularly seasoned pros like Rifkin and Topol, who convey a lot while saying relatively little. And the tetchy but loving relationship between Herschel and Itzik is sketched with real delicacy by the two actors, the outcome of their characters prompting a struggle within David to reconcile the unfeeling attitudes of one minority group as he finds his way in another. As the brooding, contemplative center of all this, Levine is consistently compelling — vulnerable, nervous and frequently defensive yet hungry for human contact that will feed his self-knowledge.

Production companies: AgX, Easy There Tiger
Cast: Samuel H. Levine, Ron Rifkin, Christopher McCann, Mark Margolis, Richard Topol, Brooke Bloom, Alex Hurt, Gera Sandler, Chris Perfetti, Zane Pais, Amir Levy, Carson Meyer, Chinaza Uche, Eleanor Reissa
Director: Eric Steel
Screenwriters: Daniel Pearle, Eric Steel, based on the short story by David Bezmozgis
Producers: Luca Borghese, Ben Howe, Eric Steel, Luigi Caiola
Executive producers: Anne Carey, Johnny Holland
Director of photography: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Costume designer: Annie Simon
Music: David Krakauer, Kathleen Tagg
Editor: Ray Hubley
Casting: Susan Shopmaker
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

118 minutes