Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch in fear and uncertainty as this fraternity of newfound freedom collapsed around him. One can feel the traces of that experience — nostalgia for old-school, in-person sexual discovery, tinged with survivor’s guilt — lurking in Steel’s narrative debut, “Minyan,” a movie about an outsider among outsiders: a closeted kid adrift in Brighton Beach’s Russian Jewish community circa 1986.
Steel took a long time to make his narrative debut, and he comes to the project in the wake of other adolescent tales depicting the same era and milieu, such as Dito Montiel’s relatively red-blooded “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” (an early Channing Tatum credit) or James Gray’s Brighton Beach family crime saga “Little Odessa” (with a young Edward Furlong). In both cases, the casting of the young roles was key. In “Minyan,” it’s the movie’s defining quality — that and the depth of its commitment to the Jewish microcosm it depicts.
This is a subtle film, so understated at times that Steel’s intentions may escape audiences entirely. But it’s shot by the same DP as last year’s “Judy” (who trades razzle-dazzle for a range of dull browns and taupe) and carried by the performance of the young actor who plays its teenage protagonist, Samuel H. Levine, a yeshiva student who discovers clues to his sexuality in an unlikely place, the Jewish retirement center where he agrees to board with his widowed grandfather (Ron Rifkin).
Levine’s an emerging talent known only to theater audiences at the moment, owing to his dual roles in Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” although “Minyan” makes clear that we are dealing with a performer of uncommon gifts. In Lopez’s play, Levine comes across unrestrained and energetic; he tends to own the stage anytime he’s on it. On the big screen, even though the close-ups are sparing, we’re struck by his Sal Mineo eyes and Monty Clift-like silhouette: the heavy, brooding brow and sharp boxer’s nose. Levine is undeniably handsome, but he’s not the pouty, pretty-boy type that seems to monopolize leading male roles these days. His is more of a 1950s masculine ideal, turned inward through a sunken-shoulder sleight of body language that leaves the character seeming unaware of his seductive potential on others.
In an early scene, David drinks stolen vodka with a bunch of boys his age, and they take the subway into the city, where all the guys but David easily strike up conversations with a group of girls, drifting off to leave him standing awkward and alone, a stranger to this heterosexual mating ritual. Later, it’s he who’s being hit on when a gypsy cab stops to offer Josef (Rifkin) and his oblivious grandson a ride. DP Ole Bratt Birkeland (the “Judy” lenser, operating with relative restraint here, such that “Minyan” looks like an East European art film by comparison) places the camera where the rearview mirror might be, so that we can feel the uncertain exchange of glances between the driver and David in the back seat.
How much does this young man understand about the way other men check him out? Contemporary gay audiences are way ahead of him, sure to pick up on the codes despite their extreme low frequency (all but masked by the film’s distractingly plangent clarinet score). They won’t miss how often the camera finds its way to waist level to admire the Adonis-belt cleft trailing into his jeans. So much of the film’s low-simmer sexual tension comes from the way it puts these clues out there for queer audiences to pick up, as inaudible as a dog whistle to your average viewer.
David’s an avid reader, but his visits to the library bring him one step closer to the world of gay cruising, as men follow one another into a corner bathroom for activities Steel leaves up to the imagination. Before long, David finds the courage to enter an East Village bar (a long commute from Brighton Beach) where the guy pouring drinks reads James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” behind the counter. It would be a cliché, but he knows it: The book is the bartender’s prop, and it works. Classroom scenes allow David to read Baldwin for himself, articulating his themes aloud. Later, David will seek out and lose his virginity to this man (Alex Hurt).
Such a description no doubt makes “Minyan” sound steamier than it is. Certainly, depicting David’s self-awakening is a big part of what drew Steel to this material, which he and co-writer Daniel Pearle (“A Kid Like Jake”) adapted from a very short story by Toronto author David Bezmozgis and transposed to New York for personal reasons. That sex scene’s a scorcher, if only because it manages to capture both the ecstasy and the awkwardness of his first time. But the movie’s more intellectual than it is physical, and it pays greater attention to David’s neighbors in the Jewish retirement home than it does the character’s own libidinous pursuits, which exist mostly on the margins.
The source material, Bezmozgis’ story, is about this retirement home that David and Josef share, where he comes to realize that the men living next door are more than roommates (they store their toothbrushes side by side and sleep in the same bed). It’s about certain parallels Steel recognizes between what the Jewish people experienced back in the war and a disease that, in its early days, seemed to target and kill a specific group. And it’s about whether this realization David is grappling with, his attraction to men, can coexist with what he represents to his family and community: Can he be both Jewish and gay? The movie’s answer, contained there in its final scene, suggests that David’s journey has been a test of whether he could find himself without losing himself in the process.