×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Saturday Church’

Exhilarating musical numbers breathe life into Damon Cardasis' otherwise generic coming-out story about a New York teen who yearns to strut in high heels.

With:
Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, Marquis Rodriguez, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia, Kate Bornstein, Jaylin Fletcher.

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.

Film Review: 'Saturday Church'

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, April 28, 2017. (In Tribeca Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 82 MIN.

Production: A Spring Pictures, Round Films presentation. Producers: Mandy Tagger Brockey, Adi Ezroni, Damon Cardasis. Executive producers: Sharon Chang, Luigi Caiola, Isabel Henderson, Lia Mayer-Sommer. Co-producer: Kirk Michael Fellows.

Crew: Director, writer: Damon Cardasis. Camera (widescreen, color): Hillary Fyfe Spera. Editor: Abbi Jutkowitz. Music: Nathan Larson. Lyrics: Nathan Larson, Damon Cardasis.

With: Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, Marquis Rodriguez, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia, Kate Bornstein, Jaylin Fletcher.

More Film

  • Bertrand Tavernier Hosts Night of Cinema

    Bertrand Tavernier Hosts Night of Cinema Inspired Orchestra in Paris

    Flanked by UniFrance president Serge Toubiana and the National Orchestra of France, filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier stood before a rapt crowd at Paris’ Maison de la Radio this past Saturday to introduce an evening dedicated to French film scores called “May the Music Begin!” That moniker – a reference to the original French title of his [...]

  • Orange Studio Sells Out 'Serial (Bad)

    Orange Studio Sells Out 'Serial (Bad) Weddings 2,' 'City Hunter' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Paris-based Orange Studio has nearly sold out its two French comedy highlights, Philippe de Chauveron’s “Serial (Bad) Weddings 2” and Philippe Lacheau’s “City Hunter.” “Serial (Bad) Weddings 2,” which opened the UniFrance Rendez-Vous in Paris last week, is the sequel of the smash hit film which grossed over $148 million worldwide. The movie has been [...]

  • Danmarks Sønner, en film af Ulaa

    Trailer for Rotterdam Competition Opener 'Sons of Denmark' Released (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the trailer for the opening film of Rotterdam Film Festival’s Tiger Competition, “Sons of Denmark.” The film is a political thriller set in Denmark in 2025, a year after a bomb attack in Copenhagen, when ethnic tensions are running high. An ultra-nationalist politician, Martin Nordahl, and his National [...]

  • Operation Red Sea review

    Chinese Entertainment Industry Braces for a 'Cold Winter' in 2019

    Winter is here for the Chinese entertainment industry, a half-dozen top-tier industry professionals concurred in Beijing at the launch last week of Tencent Entertainment’s annual data-filled white paper. China’s box office hit new heights in 2018, raking in about $9 billion, but it was also a year of drastic regulatory changes and a government tax [...]

  • Indie Sales Acquires Martin Lund's Nordic

    Indie Sales Acquires Nordic Coming-Of-Age 'Psychobitch' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Paris-based company Indie Sales has acquired Martin Lund’s Norwegian coming-of-age drama “Psychobitch” which is headlined by Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne (“Utoya: July 22”). “Psychobitch” marks the first feature film of Martin Lund, who made his debut with “Twigson Ties the Knot,” a local box office hit, and followed up with “The Almost Man,” which won [...]

  • Studiocanal has sold Jean Paul Gaultier's

    Jean Paul Gaultier's 'Freak And Chic' Documentary Sells For Studiocanal (EXCLUSIVE)

    Underscoring the strength and scope of French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s legacy around the world, the documentary “Jean Paul Gaultier Freak And Chic,” which chronicles the making of Gaultier’s ongoing popular show in Paris, has been luring distributors in key markets. Sold by Studiocanal and produced by Capa, the documentary has already been picked [...]

  • Korea Box Office: 'MAL·MO·E' and 'Inside

    Korea Box Office: 'MAL·MO·E' and 'Inside Me' Remain on Top

    There was no change at the top of the Korean box office, as local titles “MAL·MO·E: The Secret Mission” and “Inside Me (a.k.a. The Dude in Me)” dominated a second weekend. Lotte’s “MAL·MO·E” earned $4.79 million from 618,000 admissions between Friday and Sunday for a total of $16.7 million from 2.23 million admissions after two [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content