Engaging lead performances greatly enhance a familiar coming-of-age story in “Mendy: A Question of Faith,” writer-director Adam Vardy’s sympathetic account of an ultra-Orthodox Jew who leaves his insular Brooklyn enclave to sample life in the secular world of Manhattan. Inspired by a 1997 Village Voice article about Chassidic twentysomethings who drifted away from their tradition-bound Satmar sect to immerse themselves in modern life, this small-budget indie abounds in vividly drawn details of custom and character. But overall lack of narrative momentum, along with an unsatisfying conclusion, may diminish the pic’s appeal to auds other than venturesome arthouse habitues.
Ivan Sandomire neatly balances vulnerability and rebelliousness, innocence and intelligence, as Mendy, a devoutly religious young man who’s nevertheless drawn to the wild life long ago embraced by Yankel (Spencer Chandler), a childhood friend now known as Yankie. A proudly tattooed libertine, Yankie offers Mendy a place to stay while Mendy wanders through a strange new world of strip joints, rave clubs, all-night diners — where the non-kosher fare can be hazardous to Mendy’s health — and alluring shiksa cuties.
Yankie offers chauvinist advice for his naive friend, but Mendy winds up learning his important life lessons from Bianca (Gabriela Dias), Yankie’s curvy Brazilian roommate.
Bianca — a beautiful black bartender and ex-stripper who studies choreography at NYU, and dispenses love and wisdom like a bountiful Earth Mother — often seems more like a romanticized concept than a flesh-and-blood character. But Dias plays her with sufficient conviction to give that concept some credibility. Bianca brings out a sweetly engaging befuddlement in Mendy, whose lack of worldliness is such that he doesn’t know where Brazil is, or what “choreography” means.
Vardy and co-scripter Hershey Schnitzler (a real-life ex-Satmar who wrote the Yiddish dialogue) lead the audience to expect the worst when they involve the financially strapped Mendy in the international drug trade. Rather than veer into violent melodrama, however, the pic detours into an anticlimactic travelogue for a colorful holiday in Brazil that plays like a feel-good cop-out.
Digital video lensing by docu cameraman Gary Griffith is exceptionally good.