Introspective drama Minyan from writer-director Eric Steel explores the parallels between the queer experience and the lives of Jewish immigrants in an understated, absorbing manner. Taking inspiration from the David Bezmozgis short story of the same name, Minyan is a fascinating coming of age piece that blends the navigation of grief, faith and sexual exploration.
Opening in the late eighties, David (Samuel H. Levine), the son of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York’s Brighton Beach, helps his grandfather move into a tightly-knit Jewish retirement home. He soon befriends two of the closeted residents, Itzik and Herschel, who help him to build a sense of hope and understand the idea of community with regards to both his faith and sexuality. David begins to explore his own sexuality in the evenings in the East Village as he attempts to gain a sense of his place in the world.
Steel casts a watchful eye over events with a calming, quiet presence. Giving us understated glimpses into David’s life from his family’s traditional grieving process to his tight bond with his grandfather. It’s clear that David’s faith is a powerful factor in his life yet scenes exploring his struggles in Hebrew school, drinking and violent behaviour and failure to engage with classmates (other than a quietly suggested crush on Zane Pais’ Nathan) lead to him attending a mainstream school. Partly navigating grief and partly struggling to come to terms with his own closeted sexuality, David is sandwiched between the memories of the past and his place in the future.
David’s path is an unsettled one and Steel gives an insight into the character’s anxieties and self-reflection through numerous mirror shots. The navigating of his sexuality is captured in a subtle, yet elegant eroticised view. Lingering shots of shirtless David, suggested scenes of cruising in the park, and intense clammy sex scenes in the darkened apartment of ruggedly handsome bartender Bruno (Alex Hurt) all build-up a sense of David’s hunger to explore his sexuality. The scenes between David and Bruno capture the excitement and buzz of a first romance with David energised by the wealth of sexual potential in his relationship with the bartender – albeit this relationship striking as a slightly one-sided affair with David ultimately more invested than Bruno. Further depth is given to Bruno in reference to the AIDS crisis with the bartender keeping a list of the multitude friends lost to or battling the illness. Coinciding with this newfound sexual identity is David’s fascination with literature, shown as devours James Baldwin’s seminal gay classic Giovanni’s Room mirroring his own discovery.
Director Eric Steel shares: “Immigrants, Jews, homosexuals — in order to survive, they have learned to be keen observers, listeners more than talkers, always on the lookout for danger and openings,” with Minyan exploring a sense of this in Levine’s performance. Lacking a huge amount of dialogue, Levine conveys sexual longing, embittered grief, failure to fit in, and a wealth of other emotional experiences in a faultlessly complex performance. Body language, glances or even the turn of his mouth convey more than words could in this rich and compelling leading performance which carries much of the weighty themes of Minyan. Like Steel suggests, David is an observer – navigating the world through a perspective of his faith and sexuality – yet his building friendship with Itzik and Herschel show that these are compatible forces (albeit the Jewish couple never explicitly labelling themselves as a couple).
Minyan’s tone is a solemn one yet Steel’s quiet observations on coming of age and faith and are ultimately well-pitched and absorbing. A complex and compelling leading turn from Levine perfectly exemplifies the early stages of the queer experience in an exciting, fresh and subtly commanding manner.