Samuel H. Levine (Broadway’s ”The Inheritance“) subtly but powerfully carries Eric Steel’s debut feature
Actor Samuel H. Levine is at the center of “Minyan,” a first-time narrative feature by director Eric Steel, and the whole film stands or falls on his performance and his ability to hold our attention through long and contemplative silent takes. What Levine is being asked here is tricky; he must blend in to the widescreen frames and the circa-1986 Brighton Beach locale while also setting himself apart from it.
There is very little plot in this picture, co-written by Steele and Daniel Pearle, based on a short story by David Bezmozgis. Levine’s David is a young guy still in school, and he is closer to some of the older people in his life than he is to his own Russian-Jewish parents. He is first seen standing with others in a static composition as his grandfather Josef (Ron Rifkin) says Kaddish for his deceased wife. Steel and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (“Judy”) labor to give the interiors here the look of an enclosed world of its own in a way that is often reminiscent of James Gray movies like “The Yards” and “Two Lovers,” which take place in the same Brooklyn milieu.
The rooms that David exists in look warm and inviting, like a cocoon, but Levine’s David is unsettled, and it quickly becomes clear that what is unsettling him are his sexual urges. David keeps his face very hooded most of the time, but he keeps staring into mirrors to look himself over, and he seems to like what he sees. In the showers at school, David stares at a guy with lust and then throws a punch at another guy in order to distract the group from what he has just revealed about himself.
The first half of “Minyan” is based on a slowly building eroticism, in which David’s longing for sex is made palpable by Levine’s body language and the careful way he is looked at by the camera. There is a long shot of him standing shirtless by a sink and pouring himself some vodka where his jeans are down around his hips so that some of his white underwear is visible, and this very discreet image from a distance conveys more about what David is feeling than any more explicit scene could.
David befriends a pair of older Jewish males who live together, Herschel (Christopher McCann, “Chronic”) and Itzik (Mark Margolis, “Better Call Saul”). The relationship of these men to each other is deliberately left unclear, but David seems to sense that they are gay like he is, and so he is drawn to the apartment they share. When David goes to fix a lightbulb for them, Herschel holds his hands up to steady David on a ladder, and somehow Steel gives this image a sexual charge even though Herschel is just being helpful and clearly has no desire for David himself.
When David is bringing a couch up to a neighbor in an elevator, the camera focuses again on the jeans down around his hips, but we can see now that he isn’t wearing any underwear; he looks over at the very ill Itzik as if his own sexual longing might give the older man some more life. He starts cruising in a park, and after an encounter there we see him curled up on a couch with one lamp turned on by his head and one lamp that is off by his feet, and this shot gets across that David is satiated yet also even hungrier now for physical contact.
All of this is very unusual and erotic and intriguing, but “Minyan” loses its way after David has a galvanizing sexual encounter with prickly bartender Bruno (Alex Hurt, the son of William Hurt). This scene is very graphic, and perhaps a little too much so given the delicacy of what has gone on before, but it is elevated by the expression on Levine’s face at the end of it: stunned, elated, released.
Levine made his first impact on stage in Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” but his talent comes across more clearly on film in “Minyan” because the camera can go in close enough to see the subtle play of emotions on his face, which is often set in a glowering sort of mask for protection. When Levine smiles in “Minyan,” it feels like an event, because it has been so hard-won for him and for his character.
The pace of “Minyan” is very slow. The running time at nearly two hours is too long, particularly in the meandering second half. But there is enough here in the first hour to make this memory piece worthwhile, and Levine is clearly someone worth watching and following.
“Minyan” opens in New York Oct. 22, in Los Angeles and on demand Oct. 29.
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