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Review: A gay Jewish teen struggles for acceptance in ‘Minyan’

Three men in suits sit in a temple in the movie “Minyan.”
Ron Rifkin, from left, Samuel H. Levine and Christopher McCann in the movie “Minyan.”
(Strand Releasing)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Titled after a tenet in Judaism that demands the presence of at least 10 males for public prayer and other religious practices, the queer coming-of-age drama “Minyan” interrogates the interlocked spiritual and social dynamics of Brighton Beach’s Eastern European Jewish population in the mid-1980s with tonal and visual solemnity.

Drowning a secret with vodka stolen from his Russian mother’s supply, gentle teenager David (Samuel H. Levine, “The Inheritance” on Broadway) no longer fits in at his traditional yeshiva school. While helping his grandfather (Ron Rifkin) secure housing, the boy’s horizons broaden in the embrace of other men who love men: one of kinship with two elderly widowers who’ve made a life together, and another of sexual initiation with stoic bartender Bruno (Alex Hurt).

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Starting too many narrative threads at once, writer-director Eric Steel and co-writer Daniel Pearle (adapting from the short story by David Bezmozgis) load David’s self-discovery with the lingering trauma of the Holocaust, the AIDS epidemic, James Baldwin’s legacy, and an underlying crisis of faith, overwhelming the film’s thematic bandwidth.

Steel demonstrates acute competency for cinematic emotional details when the charged images replace historical references in the way of stolen glances, the implications of a pair of toothbrushes in a shared household, or in how an affection-starved David maneuvers his forbidden orientation somewhere between caution and abandon.

From an aesthetic standpoint, “Minyan” is an exquisitely realized fiction debut (Steele has directed documentaries) blessed with the muted colors of Lucio Seixas’ production design captured in Ole Bratt Birkeland’s graceful cinematography, which soak the period piece in the melancholia of a dignified humbleness, and a piercingly jazzy score that vibrates with eerie holiness.

With its numerous supporting characters, many unfortunately embodied through mannered acting, Steel’s picture spins around Levine’s superb turn of tender sensuality and suppressed rage seeking catharsis in the body of another.

Amid the somberness, the filmmaker offers David an unspoken acceptance, an imperfect sense of community where others like him try to reconcile their personal truth with their divine beliefs. For all the accumulation of subplots, “Minyan” potently states that the suffering garnered in their collective past and current individual woes aren’t supposed to be carried alone.

‘Minyan’

In English and Hebrew with English subtitles

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 29, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino


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