While many of the titles at this year’s New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival have spotlighted the modern gay dating culture as facilitated through social media and apps, it’s easy to forget a time when it wasn’t so easy to make a connection. Director Eric Steel highlights some of those challenges in his debut feature Minyan. This brooding drama offers an insightful window into what it was like to grow up gay and Jewish in 1980s Brooklyn.
Minyan stars Samuel H. Levine as David, a yeshiva student whose education surrounds traditional religious teachings. Though his Jewish family originates from Russia, David is an avid reader heavily influenced by American culture. David would prefer to attend a more secular institution, but is unable to convince his overprotective mother, who wants to protect him from anti-semitism. He therefore turns to his more approachable grandfather for guidance. But even his grandfather would be unable to help him with his most secret desire – his burgeoning attraction to men.
Indeed, when Joseph advises him to seek answers in “the book,” David ultimately turns to “Giovanni’s Room” – James Baldwin’s seminal novel about queer identity. But rather then experiencing an exhilarating epiphany, David’s sexuality is still a heavy burden. As David comes to terms with his desires, his early explorations consist mainly of suggestive glances with little follow through.
The film’s tense atmosphere eventually livens up when David decides to attend a gay bar one night. Emboldened with liquid courage, he goes home with an attractive bartender. As he takes the full plunge, Minyan finally expresses a rare sense of passion. And it gives Levine’s taut, restrained performance room to breathe.
For better or worse, David’s sexual awakening is not the only thematic concern in the plot. Through conversations with his grandfather and other Jewish elders, David learns of their traumatic memories of war and the Holocaust. Furthermore, his newfound sexual partner informs him of the tragic spectre of the AIDS crisis which haunts the gay community.
The result is an admittedly heavy viewing experience and one that is heavily steeped in Jewish tradition. You may even need a primer on Judaism to fully understand the significance of the titular minyan, which comes into play when his widowed grandfather goes apartment hunting. Though Minyan’s slow pacing may test your patience, there’s much to admire in the elegance of the filmmaking. Notably, its jazzy score, confident direction and the compelling gravitas of the acting performances. It’s ultimately a well-crafted time capsule that stands out for its fascinating authenticity of its uniquely gay and Jewish perspective.