Review: 'Minyan' Charms

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 6, 2020


When queer documentarian Eric Steel adapted David Bezmozgis's short story "Minyan" into his first feature film, the narrative became much more personal. Like the protagonist David (Samuel H. Levine), Steel grew up in a New York Jewish family in the 1980s, when being gay in the midst of an AIDS pandemic was a very tough rite of passage.

"Minyan" starts (and finishes) with a death. Now that his Russian Immigrant grandmother has died, his grandfather (a beautifully nuanced performance by Ron Rifkin) can no longer afford to live his apartment. Finding a cheaper one in their beloved Brighton Beach is no mean feat, but they come across a Jewish retirement apartment building where there is one vacant unit that is highly sought after.

However, the synagogue is two men short of a minyan (the quorum of ten men required for traditional Jewish public worship), so Grandfather volunteers himself and David, and is assigned the apartment.

David willingly accepts in this part of the deal, as he is devoted to his grandfather, who is the only stabilizing force of affection in his life. His estranged father is a bullying ex-boxer, and his frustrated mother tries to suffocate David at every turn, so he spends as much time with his grandfather as possible.

However, the 17-year-old is at a stage when he is questioning everything, beginning with his religion. Against his mother's advice he swaps studying the Torah at a Yeshiva for reading James Baldwin at a public school.

David has to come to terms with his sexuality; he is oblivious to how attractive he is to other men, like when, for example, a cab driver hits on him. He wants to explore the possibility, so to get some dutch courage he has a habit of filling a flask full of vodka at home and then topping up the partly emptied bottle with water.

His first trip to a gay bar is in the afternoon, when the only are people there are the local drunk sitting as bar, and a hunky barmen (Alex Hurt) studiously reading James Baldwin. When David loses his virginity to him, he learns the book is nothing but a prop for his image. (And a very successful one, it seems.)

The neighbors in the apartment adjoining his grandfather's are two elderly widowers. David slowly comes to realize that the men living next door are more than roommates (they store their toothbrushes side by side and sleep in the same bed). When one of the couple dies and the landlord is about to evict the remaining one, it is David who surprises himself (and us) by pleading for clemency.

Much of Steel's story lies in the unspoken parts, as we can see the quandary about whether one can be both gay and Jewish on David's face even if he never really verbalizes it. It's an impressive and compelling performance from the 24-year-old Levine, who is known mainly for his stage work (e.g., an award-winning role in "The Inheritance"). He has the look of an old matinee idol about him, which the camera loves.

"Minyan" is a gentle coming out film with a great deal of charm. (Did we mention how very hot and authentic the scenes of intimacy were?) We loved both the subtlety and the slow pace, and also the complete contrast at the best line from the film, which left a big grin on our faces: "Thieves, adulterers, homosexuals. I take them all. Without them, we would never have our minyan."

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.