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  • DAY 4: Minyan: Pro and Con review


DAY 4: Minyan: Pro and Con review

Will you be adding director Eric Steels's 'Minyan' to your Berlinale must-watch list?

Samuel H. Levine in Minyan
Photo courtesy of © AgX

In today’s Panorama section controversial Bridges documentary director Eric Steels returns with a more sanguine drama about a Jewish boy coming of age in 1980’s New York. However, it’s already got our critics split on its various merits. See what you think.

PRO: Can’t wait – Mark Esper

In 1980s New York, 17-year-old David (Samuel H. Levine) is at the beck and call of his Russian Jewish family. However, when his grandmother passes away everything changes. In helping his benign grandfather find sheltered accommodation, the building administrator only agrees to give him shelter provided that both he and David share the apartment. Now free from the watchful gaze of his mother and fuelled by the taboo-breaking books of James Baldwin and the beckoning gay bars of NY’s East Village, David can discover who he is, rather than what his community would have him believe.

From the controversial director of The Bridge, Eric Steel has delivered an affecting, if meandering glimpse in youthful awakening set against multiple levels of shame. From immigration to survivor’s guilt, the holocaust and sexual identity, Minyan grazes each of its topics with the abrasive glances of David, a put-upon boy who doesn’t where to place himself.

In amongst the fractured insights of his Torah-quoting Grandfather, David’s suppressed desires force him into a double-life. Where each innocent question or proffered doughnut gnaws away at his real sexual identity, David feels like a boy walking into an x-ray future where everyone else knows the results.

From the excellent harpy, Jewish mother as played by Brooke Bloom, the always magnetic Mark Margolis, the tender Ron Rifkin and the superbly sanguine scene-stealer that is Amir Levy, Minyanis a coming of age portrait with plenty of colourful characters. However as David, Samuel H. Levine shares his best moments with Alex Hurt’s Bruno, a disaffected and brutalised gay bartender who is witnessing the beginning of the AIDS avalanche.

Touching, though never lingering on any of its subtexts too long, Minyanis a beautifully shot and languid look at the 1980s through a compromised set of eyes. From the scheming antics of New York’s geriatric Jewish community to David’s joyful release in the dark-bricked hedonism of New York’s gay bars (featuring an excellent needle-drop moment with Giant by The The by the way), Minyanpasses over many opportunities for real, genuine heft. When Eric Steel’s latest could have tellingly closed with all its characters revealed for their own complicit self-interest, it doesn’t.

Further damned by its hammer-it-home freeze-frame which the movie closes on, Minyan is an affectionately nuanced, if slow-paced drama, that still deserves to be added to your waiting list.

CON: Heaven can wait – Walter Crasshole

As you first settle into Eric Steel’s debut feature, you get the feeling that Minyan might take its time to unfold, but its pay-off worthwhile. However, as the two hours go on, it’s not that something isn’t unfolding, it’s unfolding all over the place. Too many plot threads, confused character motivations and unexplained conflict burden down what could have been a very focused film on coming-of-age sexually and a very strict religious family dynamic.

And therefore, the character of David is overwhelmed. Daniel Pearle and Eric Steel’s screenplay have a lot more coming at him than coming from him. Aside from the issues David is going through with his family – from his grandfather to his mother to his ex-boxer macho of a father – Minyanuses the first half to hint at a puppy love relationship between David and classmate at a religious Jewish school. But that thread is dropped, when his friend disappears to join the IDF halfway through the film. No matter, David goes on to explore the world the East Village gay bars and secular education (a world where seemingly everyone is reading James Baldwin). It’s in the bar where he meets Bruno, and my colleague is right when he says David’s best moments are with Alex Hurt’s character. Bruno’s best quality then might have been his dick, but unfortunately that also describes his personality. And confusingly so. After Bruno picks up the 17-year-old boy on the street, takes him home and has unprotected sex with him, he unleashes a fury on David when asked about the scribbled names of men on the wall. The viewer is left aghast at who to be more shocked by: an older man mentoring a younger gay man navigating his sexuality, or seriously anyone in 1987 New York City that wasn’t aware of the AIDS crisis in some capacity (anyone in 2020 would hard-pressed to not know what the names were about before David asked). And those are just two of the threads that leave one confused and wanting more.

The only thing not really unfolding is young David’s personality. As he struggles to come to terms with a scattershot world unfolding around him, David’s monosyllabic, stone-faced reactions remain one of the film’s few constants and since every other plot thread is picked up and dropped with such haste, his inability to really react comes across as the character being dragged from inexplicable situation to inexplicable situation – as if the film is about things happening to him, rather than his interaction with him. Minyantackles a lot of worthy topics as well as the contradictions that make up a young person’s life, but all so fleetingly it can’t grasp any well enough to make the viewer feel more than the film happened to them.

Minyan | Directed by Eric Steel (USA 2020) with Samuel H. Levine, Mark Margolis, Brooke Bloom, Ron Rifkin, Zane Pais, Alex Hurt, Richard Topol, Chinaza Uche, Chris Perfetti, Elizabeth Loyacano, Christopher McCann, Sacha Seberg, Amir Levy, Eli Rosen and Julie Zanata. Starts Feb 22.