A gay Brooklyn teenager (The Inheritance’s Samuel H. Levine) charts his own sexual awakening and the complexities of his Russian Jewish family in documentarian Eric Steel’s narrative debut Minyan. The work of James Baldwin is certainly in the zeitgeist again as, much like Tomasz Jedrowski’s brilliant debut novel Swimming in the Dark, Giovanni’s Room provides a narrative turning point here. When David (Levine) takes his first steps into a gay bar during the day, he claps eyes on a handsome, brooding bartender Bruno (Alex Hurt) reading Baldwin’s classic, sending him on a journey of self-discovery.
But this is New York in the 1980s and the presence of AIDS isn’t too far from the frame of the story. Alex Hurt’s bartender has the knowing appeal of a hustler while Levine’s David is only too happy to be taken for a ride, but we, the knowing viewer, are aware of the dangers at work here.
At the centre of the film, Levine proves he can command the screen as well as the stage. Often silent, Levine conveys David’s many thoughts with a subtle control. As David loses his virginity, the mix of awkwardness, eagerness, pain, joy and revelation wash over his face in waves – there is a full three-act structure to the fucking.
While David’s sexual discovery forms the backbone of Minyan, it is his other relationships that give the film a true beauty. As he helps his grandfather Josef (a note-perfect Ron Rifkin) settle into a new apartment, he forms a friendship with the two elderly men next door, Itzik (Mark Margolis) and Herschel (Christopher McCann). This gentle trio of men with deep histories imparting wisdom to a teenager gives the film its best moments.
Minyan is a measured and often melancholy film, more interested in telling David’s tale through mood and tone than action. I wish I’d had the chance to see it in a cinema rather than a digital screening room, to truly be enveloped in its charm. But with a raft of great performances captured beautifully by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and director Steel, Minyan is well worth seeing in any format.
By Chad Armstrong
Minyan is currently available to stream for a limited time as part of Outfest 2020 at OutfestLA2020.com