Urban stories. Films reviewed: STEP, Menashe PLUS TIFF17 preview

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Dance, documentary, Drama, Family, Judaism, Movies, Yiddish by CulturalMining.com on August 12, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is still a month away, but already some of the movies are generating buzz, even before anyone’s seen them. Here are some I want to see. Call Me by Your Name looks at a boy in northern Italy who has a crush on an older visiting student. It’s directed by Luca Guadagnino who brought us This is Love. Mary Shelly could be a conventional historical biopic about the author of Frankenstein, but what’s so interesting is this is the second film by Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who brought us the delightiful Wadjda five years ago. The Shape of Water features Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman working in a secret weapons lab, who discovers she can communicate with a Creature from the Black Lagoon kept captive in a glass tank. It was made in Toronto by the great Guillermo del Toro. I’ll have some more buzz about Canadian movies next week.

But this week I’m talking about two American films centred on urban life: a documentary on school life in Baltimore, and a drama about home life in Brooklyn.

STEP

Dir: Amanda Lipitz

BLSYW (or “Bliss”), the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a public charter school with a clearly stated goal: that all of its students (mainly African-American girls and young women) will not just graduate each year but will continue on to college or university. And at the core of this school is their Step team. Step is a competitive sport that combines athletics, dance and theatrical performance, driven by music and rhythm. The intense practice and teamwork helps motivate the young women to succeed in their studies and fosters a sense of responsibility.

This documentary follows three of the students — Cori, Tayla and Blessin – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The three use their brains, skills and charisma to succeed. This also means getting their families to cooperate. The cameras follow them home so you meet their families, atoo. And at school it’s Coach G and their guidance counsellor who carry the story on. Together can they break away and rise up from the poverty and oppresssion faced by so many Baltimoreans for so many generations? Or will life, and the normal pressures they face, drag them down?

STEP follows their lives in the newly formed school against the background of the killing of Freddy Gray by local police. It shows how the Black Lives Matter movement — and the political awakening that accompanied it — enters the girls’ lives and even their Step performances.

This is a fascinating and inspiring look specifically at one charter school in Baltimore. It doesn’t deal with controversies over the charter system in general, or how charter schools might affect other schools in the public system. But it does provide a feel-good story that hopefully will motivate youth throughout that country to achieve their goals. Either way, it’s an enjoyable, funny and touching look at the lives of three girls.

Menashe

Dir: Joshua Z Weinstein

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a single dad who lives in a self-contained Hasidic community in Brooklyn. He’s chubby with an unkempt red beard and rimless glasses. He has a low-paying job at a local grocery store unloading boxes, sweeping the floor and as a cashier. And for fun, he studies religious books, and sings songs with his friends over a cup of schnapps. He’s coping with his economic troubles, but faces an even bigger one: the community disapproves of single parent households. He has lived alone with his young son Rievele (Ruben Niborski) his only source of happiness since his wife died earlier that year. But they’re pressuring him to marry again, and arranging dates. He wants none of that — can’t they just leave him alone? Apparently not. And to force the issue, his brother in law Yitsig has forced his son to move in with his family until Menashe marries again. He did this with the approval of their rabbi, so Menashe is forced to go along with it or his son could be kicked out of school.

His brother in law is everything Menashe is not. He makes good income selling real estate, lives in an expensive brownstone. Itsig has a silken black beard almost two feet long and wears a black coat and fur hat when he goes outside. He treats Menashe disdainfully, calling him demeaning names to his face.

But Menashe is granted reprieve: his son can move back home until the one year anniversary of his wife’s death. Can he prove he’s a fit father by then? Or will his clumsy nature and bad luck alienate his father son relationship and what’s left of his status in the insular ultra-orthodox community?

Menashe is a touching and realistic drama based on actual events in the actor Menashe’s life. Most remarkable of all is the dialogue is entirely in Yiddish, peppered with a few English words, like “plastic bag” and she’s “not my type”. The cast is largely composed of non-actors. A gently-paced movie, it gives a look behind the scenes, from the plastic wash basin kept under his bed, to the large white cap Ruben wears to sleep each night. Menashe is a slice-of-life family drama rarely scene on film.

Step and Menashe both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

 

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