Minyan is a story of otherness: of immigrants, Jews and homosexuals — people who, back in 80’s New York where Eric Steel’s film is set, often appeared to be on the outside looking in. Minyan is also the story of David, 17 years old and part of a Jewish family that emigrated from the Soviet Union to “Little Odessa” in Brooklyn in the 1970s.
David’s grandfather is set to move into a new apartment in a block which includes a small synagogue. In order for any synagogue to function, most Jewish religious services require a minyan – a quorum of at least 10 men to be present (although these days more progressive strands of Judaism include women). Because there are not enough Jews in the block to make the requisite minyan, the building manager allows David and his grandfather to jump the queue on the condition that they come off the bench to complete a minyan when necessary.
Dark undercurrents run throughout the movie: as David begins to realise that he is gay – helped on his voyage of discovery by shagging the barman of a local gay bar – the spectre of AIDS is never far away while, at home, conversation among the older immigrant generation frequently veers into tales of the Holocaust. If this miserabalist double-whammy of plague and genocide isn’t enough for you, there’s an added dose of old-school homophobia directed at David’s neighbours, an elderly Jewish couple who only discovered their true nature after having been widowed late in life.
The television dramas It’s a Sin and Pose demonstrate that an LGBT-themed narrative set against the backdrop of HIV and AIDS can still have its uplifting and funny moments, creating the light and shade necessary to hold an audience’s interest. And although Minyan did hold my interest, I would have liked to have seen some more changes of pace and mood, although David’s losing his virginity to the sexy barman did break out of the bleakness for a moment or two.
The look and feel of Minyan demands a lead performance of subtlety and nuance, and Samuel H Levine as David delivers exactly that. Levine is an an award-winning stage actor both on Broadway and in the West End where, to be seen by your audience, gestures and expressions need to be bigger than on the screen, where even the slightest facial tic can be picked up by the camera. It is for this reason that not all stage actors make a successful transfer from the boards to celluloid (don’t write in, I know it’s all digital these days) but it is a tribute to Levine that he makes it look easy.
It’s fair to say that, while Minyan is unlikely to fill your heart with joy and your soul with a spirit of unfettered optimism, it is nonetheless an accomplished and understated piece of work which deserves to find its audience.
Minyan launches on Peccadillo on 7 January 2022.