(2021, 118 min)
Director: Eric Steele
Studio: Strand Releasing
A young Russian Jewish immigrant in Brighton Beach, caught up in the tight constraints of his community, develops a close friendship with his grandfather's new neighbors, two elderly closeted gay men who open his imagination to the possibilities of love and the realities of loss. He also begins to explore the East Village, where he finds a world teeming with the energy of youth, desire and risk. Set in the late 1980s, as AIDS hammered New York City, Minyan tells a powerful and romantic story of rebellion, self-discovery, sexual and spiritual awakening - and survival.
Coming to Terms with Judaism and Homosexuality
"Minyan" directed by Eric Steele is a gay coming of age story threaded together with a journey towards acceptance for David (Samuel H. Levine), a young man grappling with his own religious and cultural identity. David is a diligent Yeshiva student who is beginning to realize that he is attracted to men. Through his growing friendship with his grandfather's elderly closeted gay and his connection with a handsome East Village barman (Alex Hurt) and the writing of James Baldwin, David gradually comes to terms with his identity as a practicing Jew, a Russian immigrant and a gay man. The film looks at a double awakening-spiritual and sexual.
Director Steele has been until now a documentary film maker and we see that here. We sense his research. Set in the mid-1980's when AIDS hovers over the gay community, Steele puts emphasis on period and location. Based both on a short story by David Bezmozgis and on Steel's own experience of coming out during the 1980, we are taken to the then predominantly Russian Jewish enclave of Brighton Beach and the gay scene in the East Village and find a persuasively gritty and unvarnished city.
David is closer to his clever, professionally-thwarted mother than he is to his ex-boxer father but he is closest to his wise, recently widowed grandfather. In order to make sure that his grandfather gets past the waiting list for a Jewish retirement home, David is drafted as a regular at the same synagogue as gay pensioners Itzik (Mark Margolis) and Herschel (Christopher McCann). The title, Minyan, refers to the quorum of 10 men required for Jewish public prayer. David's commitment to make up the numbers is as much about expediency as it is about anything else yet through it, his worldview is opened.
Whether carrying the Torah, studying at Yeshiva or in high school, or at home with his family, David's eyes are constantly searching for something outside of the frame. Soon enough, his eyes lock onto those of another man, and he starts to understand the messages hidden in the loaded glances.
There are several motifs woven into the narrative including the covert draining and refilling of the 'best' vodka; the inspiring literature class; the score and klezmer infused jazz and these anchor David's story to the traditions of his family. While the film might not be doing anything revolutionary with the gay coming of age story, but it is heartfelt and honest. And at times, unexpectedly hot.
David's parents and grandfather take it for granted that he will participate in the prayers requiring ten men but David begins to live out the East Village scene very slowly and gradually questions the strict rules of his community. He also befriends two gay, Jewish seniors.
The trauma of the Holocaust, repressive Orthodox tradition, doubts about faith, homosexuality in a homophobic environment, family cordoning, alcohol problems and AIDS are the most prominent of the topics Eric Steel uses in "Minyan. The scene that Steel sets is one of shabby apartments, dull synagogues and the dilapidated streets of a lackluster East Village as if these are a pretext for litany of faith. These also lead 17-year-old David to non-binding sex, sometimes to his grandfather Josef (Ron Rifkin), for whom he organizes an apartment in a Jewish senior residence. He develops an unusual friendship with Itzik and Herschel, but it remains underdeveloped like David's affair with bartender Bruno (Alex Hurt). Although he keeps a name list of his acquaintances who have died of AIDS, he has unprotected sex without hesitation. For his part, David doesn't even seem to know anything about AIDS.
The drama here is presented in drab colors. David's family hides the existence of homosexuality in the world and do not consider it worthy of their consideration. Thus David is totally on his own. The moralistic blinders David wears about HIV also limit the dramaturgical view.
The East Village of the 80s AIDS panic never looked more desolate than in this film. David, himself, is colorless especially when he mainly on the couch with seniors, who talk about life as an Eastern European Jews did back then. Th main problem that I had here is that the incompatibility of Jewish belief with the homosexuality of the main character is never problematized. You keep silent and feed donuts while the audience is hungry. Nonetheless, it is a start and while there have been better films that deal with the same issues, there simply are just not enough. It is so good that the door is finally being opened enough for us to look through it.
-- Review by Amos Lassen, Reviews(http://wwww.reviewsbyamoslassen.com)