Saturday Church (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Innovative and brave, Saturday Church is a film as timely as it is unique.
Luka Kain's performance as Ulysses, a 14-year-old boy questioning his gender identity, is organic, authentic, and one of the more striking debuts in recent memory.
Reminds us that teens like Ulysses are everywhere and need to have their own "Saturday Church" to feel supported, celebrated, and loved.
At 82 minutes, Saturday Church wears its lean budget a little too obviously, and though it should be commended for being a true independent musical, seven songs feels like a little too much.
Compassionate as it is, Saturday Church leaves a lot of real estate unexplored, which may make some viewers feel the film doesn't dig deep enough to allow for the understanding it asks for.
The movie looks at the gender identifying journey of a 14-year-old boy. He is surrounded by a welcoming and accepting trans community and a shelter and support group for LGBTQ teens. If this premise makes you uncomfortable, I hope you find peace one day recognizing not everyone is like you.
When a movie is made with such conviction and integrity as Saturday Church, I defy anyone to stand in the way of its ambition. With a shoestring budget, but a heart as full as the richest of bank accounts, the film takes us into the world of Ulysses (Luka Kain), a 14-year-old boy attempting to come to terms with their gender identity, amid the challenges of a difficult home life and finding a place in high school and with their church.
Written and directed by Damon Cardasis, the film is named after the Saturday Church program in New York City for LGBTQ youth. Inspired by the free meals, shelter, and support the program offers LGBTQ people every Saturday night in the West Village, Ulysses finds a network of trans and gay friends when he ventures away from the home after an altercation with his conservative Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor).
For Ulysses and brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher), they are reeling from the recent death of their father and the realization that mother Amara (Margot Bingham) is now a single parent. When Aunt Rose is invited to stay with the family, she targets Ulysses and chastises him for being "different."
Cardasis' script includes seven musical numbers over the course of the film's lean, efficient 82 minutes, and Saturday Church has been described by others as a hybrid of sorts between Moonlight and La La Land. The songs, though sometimes a bit on-the-nose, propel the story forward and can be found within a fantasy sequence, to otherwise escape from a difficult situation, a musical break, or to amplify a character's emotions.
There is a kindness which permeates through every frame, even when the film delves into difficult topics and subjects. Ulysses is also exploring gender fluidity and attempting to come to terms with identity, a fact that family struggles to understand.
Kain is tremendous here, his skittishness and hesitancy at the beginning of the film feeling purposeful and necessary in advancing the film to where it needs to go. Ulysses finds support and love from Ebony (Mj Rodriguez) and Dijon (Indya Moore), two trans women who provide the safety and comfort of a home away from home, with guidance, acceptance, and a welcoming embrace helping bring forth the person Ulysses is within.
Cardasis gives us a world that feels genuine, and genderqueer activist Kate Bornstein is a wonderful addition to the cast as the director of the outreach program Ulysses and friends visit every weekend.
Saturday Church has some issues. At 82 minutes, the film can only scratch the surface of themes and subplots that might require more exploration and the songs, though often effective, sometimes arrive at unexpected times and take the focus off escalating drama, sharply altering the tone of the film in a jarring manner.
But what Saturday Church has however is heart, and it beats strong and proud. Luka Kain's performance is special and the buzz around his work is deserved. The optics Cardasis offers us with his casting and in the places he takes us in the film are important.
Though its ambition can far exceed its execution, Saturday Church left me hopeful and optimistic, offering a message of acceptance and individual importance that brought a smile to my face and warmth to my heart.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, Jaylin Fletcher, Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia, Marquis Rodriguez, Kate Bornstein.
Director: Damon Cardasis
Written by: Damon Cardasis
Release Date: January 12, 2018
Samuel Goldwyn Films