Were you Team “Moonlight” or Team “La La Land”? Now you don’t have to choose. As vibrant as it is vital, Manhattan-made indie “Saturday Church” tells the all-too-common coming-out story of a young black gay man … as a musical, blending elements of those rival best picture nominees into a winning new combination. While hardly as accomplished as either, writer-director Damon Cardasis’ colorful, you-are-not-alone debut should delight LGBT audiences — especially young ones — thanks to a handful of dynamically choreographed identity-empowerment ballads that would be right at home on either next year’s Oscar ballot or a NYC vogue ball playlist.
In recent years, the challenges facing trans youth have garnered so much public attention, you’ve surely heard a story like Ulysses’ before — although you’ve never heard it quite like this, as Cardasis’ goosebump-inducing songs (composed and co-written by Nathan Larson) elevate this otherwise familiar tale to a higher realm. For the first 15 minutes, which is the too-long wait until its first musical number drops, “Saturday Church” feels like countless other “confused” teen movies, from “Pariah” to “Viva,” to name just two semi-recent breakouts. (Because teens tend to reject anything older than six months, the LGBT film circuit has a near-unquenchable appetite for virtually identical coming-out stories, as otherwise-generic offerings prove revelatory to virgin eyes.)
However familiar his predicament, it’s still heartbreaking to watch as fatherless 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain, a gorgeous, von Gloeden-esque singer-actor whose fierce inner goddess lies just below the surface) grapples with certain urges that so many others have felt before him: a desire to try on his mom’s high heels, the illicit allure of a gay stroke magazine, and the almost magnetic attraction to the West Village’s Christopher Street neighborhood, where so many self-questioning teens like him have congregated over the years, dating back even before the Stonewall riots.
Because Ulysses was raised in a conservative religious family, he associates shame and anguish with each of these desires, forcing him to wrestle with what he believes to be a damnable identity in private — especially after his disapproving aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) threatens to kick him out if he doesn’t shape up. It’s precisely this kind of ultra-severe, unsympathetic domestic situation that Cardasis aims to combat with this film, criticizing the judgmental mindset that compels many trans and gender-nonconforming young people to run away — which all too often leads to sex work, homelessness, and suicide.
Lucky for Ulysses, his new Christopher Street friends introduce him to Saturday Church. Unlike the fire-and-brimstone Sunday services he’s used to, this weekend program is non-preachy and all-inclusive, as a progressive-minded West Village parish hosts a safe environment for the local LGBTQ community to hang out, see to their health needs, and otherwise feel accepted. It is here that Ulysses learns about the ball scene, as depicted in last year’s “Kiki” (and much evolved since Jennie Livingston’s landmark doc “Paris Is Burning” brought voguing to the world’s attention). Here, in the company of a bland new romantic interest (Marquis Rodriguez) and a host of positive role models (led by sterling-voiced MJ Rodriguez, as resident diva Ebony), Ulysses can be himself — or at least begin to understand who he really is.
If the story of “Saturday Church” seems overly simplistic, that’s because Cardasis himself has volunteered with the organization, crafting the movie less as a promotional tool than as a chance to extend its outreach to far-flung audiences. As an openly gay director with a religious upbringing, he went out of his way to cast trans actors, checking the PC boxes that matter to the community he depicts. Though the ensemble brings their individual personalities to the table, as written, their characters have an unspecific, almost composite quality, speaking in generically sassy terms (“Let’s do some ‘Princess Diaries’ shit,” says one before giving Ulysses his first makeover).
Though “Saturday Church” doesn’t shy away from the sexual dimension of Ulysses’ coming out, Cardasis approaches it in such a way that should avoid the recent ratings kerfuffle faced by “3 Generations” (a typically disingenuous bit of self-promotion on Harvey Weinstein’s part, in which the “R” had less to do with the trans subject than other MPAA bugaboos, easily avoided with a few cuts — though the faux-controversy bought TWC lots of free publicity, as intended). The movie’s not only appropriate for teen audiences, but also constructive in the way it invites viewers to consider and discuss issues of intolerance and hypocrisy, even as it encourages those who don’t fit the straight, marriage-oriented paradigm to embrace their own identities.