Leah and Ariel are two very different sisters who have come together to mourn their mother's recent passing. Leah is the dutiful sister, while free-wheeling, rebellious Ariel can't wait to go back to the city. They're hoping to say Kaddish at an evening prayer service for their mom, but they find themselves one person short of a "Minyan" -- a quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for the service.
As they grapple with the problem, long-simmering tensions and resentments come to the surface. Ariel manages to find an unorthodox solution to their shortage -- one that irritates Leah and indicates all she finds annoying about her sister. But as it unfolds, a common ground emerges to bridge the gap between the sisters at a time when it's needed most.
Written and directed by Ivan Kander, this short dramedy is marked by an exceptionally skillful balance of tones, emotions and ideas. It's a window into the expression of Jewish faith, identity and culture in a modern context, with two sisters seeking to honor their mother with an ancient tradition. It's also a family story about the way familial resentments, obligations and burdens can lurk and fester until anger comes out at the most trying times. What links these different strands together is intelligent storytelling and sharply observant yet humane humor, rendered with thoughtful, unpretentious craftsmanship.
The solid foundation of the film are the distinctly drawn sisters, brought to life by terrific performances from actors Sarah Baskin and Michelle Uranowitz. Their conflicts are both recognizably archetypal and specific as they bicker at a suburban synagogue, waiting for the final person in their minyan to show up. Their different life choices have only widened the distance between them, a gap that only seems to widen when Ariel pulls in a local food delivery driver to complete their quorum.
The driver isn't Jewish, and the film finds some humor in the "fish out of water" scenario that develops, though it's never farcical and never at the expense of the driver, played by actor Damien Lemon with self-assurance, ease and kindness. Indeed, as the Kaddish proceeds, the driver takes the sacred moment to heart in a way that the two sisters -- distracted by their tension and conflict -- do not. Though he's told by Ariel that he doesn't have to stay for the prayer, he does, using the moment to enter into his own reflection and mourning. In doing so, Leah and Ariel seem to remember just why they are there -- and that they have one another in a sad, difficult moment of their lives.
The turning point of "Minyan Duty" could easily fall into cliche on paper, but in the film it's woven with such matter-of-fact simplicity and understatement that it's a genuine moment of warmth and revelation, where the noise and fog of everyday life dissipate to reveal what truly matters. It's somewhat old-fashioned to talk about shared humanity, but the film has the emotional intelligence to locate its vision of common ground in the inescapability of loss in the human experience. Though the ways we honor and mark our grief may differ, due to culture, temperament and inclination, we all seek peace and solace from the sufferings of life. It's also a reminder that we do not have to walk alone during the difficult parts of our paths, and that hope and comfort are found in solidarity and community, whether it's with the company of friends, family and even a like-minded stranger.