Saturday Church is an inventive, masterfully made film that will likely leave you in tears while feeling exhilarated. Director and writer Damon Cardasis manages to escape the pitfall of other filmed musicals: the infusion of music into the story never feels repetitive, instead it feels like an essential element.
Dazzling, impressive and invigorating, this outstanding movie gives more visibility to LGBTQ people of color, who are typically underrepresented in cinema.
Saturday Church screens Feb. 11 at 6:45 p.m. as part of the ninth annual Desperado LGBT Film Festival. For Echo ‘s complete coverage of the festival, which takes place Feb. 9-11 at Paradise Valley Community College, click here.
Ulysses (Luka Kain) is a 14-year-old growing up in New York City who is relentlessly bullied at school. Following the death of his father, the effeminate youngster is coping with new responsibilities as “man of the house.” Simultaneously, his conservative aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) moves in to help his mother, Amara (Margot Bingham), take care of him and his little brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher). In addition to all the challenges already facing him, Ulysses is confronted with his aunt’s overbearing demeanor and religious zealotry while pursuing his quest for self-discovery.
Trying on mom’s shoes gets Ulysses in trouble with Aunt Rose, who shames and scolds the teenager. Ultimately, Ulysses takes the subway down to the gay mecca – the West Village’s Christopher Street neighborhood – and follows someone to the piers, where he meets Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore) and Heaven (Alexia Garcia), LGBTQ community veterans who quickly take the lost young soul under their wings.
They bring Ulysses to a place known as Saturday Church, a safe performance space where the fierce, but tender, divas perfect their looks and practice the art of voguing.
The teenager is emboldened by his discovery that there are others like him, who also like adding a little color in their lives, all while staying grounded in a sassy pair of heels.
Soon, Ulysses is imagining a fantastical world infused with music and dance as an escape from his oppressive life at home and school. But when his home situation takes a turn for the worst, Ulysses learns the brutal, earth-shattering reality of living on the streets.
Kain does an outstanding job carrying the film: the young man is a skilled actor and singer who deserves all the acclaim he’s receiving. Fans of the old NBC/PBS series “I’ll Fly Away” may remember Taylor in that show’s lead role. Here she takes a delicious turn as she portrays the wicked role of Aunt Rose and shows no mercy for Ulysses.
At one point, Rose laments that as a young African-American, Ulysses will face even more discrimination if he wears heels.
Adding some transgender credibility to the talented cast is author, playwright performance artist and gender theorist Kate Bornstein as Joan, the woman who runs Saturday Church, which is actually a real-life locale in New York City for trans teens.
The director seamlessly fuses the memorable music by Nathan Larson, rich cinematography by Hillary Spera and dynamic choreography by the cast to bolster the creative team’s talents into a single uplifting package.
Other musicals could be criticized for featuring one song too many, or for introducing a musical number that breaks the diagesis, killing the suspension of disbelief at an inopportune time. But in Saturday Church, Larson’s musical numbers are perfectly timed, never becoming ill-placed, until perhaps literally the final minute of the film.
Cardasis fills most of the scenes in his script with spoken dialogue, so viewers spend a lot of time learning about and relating to the characters before anyone breaks out into song. The smattering of musical numbers help share their stories and feelings, but the music never seems to become the dominant mode of expression. Rarely, if at all, will you ask yourself, “Are they going to sing again?” In fact, there never seems to be a song that doesn’t belong, or a tune you’d want to tune out in the film.
Calling this musical La La Land meets Paris Is Burning would be reductive, but it’s fair to say that this project is another brilliant expression of the way young people are living their lives honestly and fabulously.
And folks are taking notice: the film earned nominations at the Tribeca Film Festival, won the Grand Jury Award at Outfest Los Angeles 2017 and received honorable mention at the Frameline San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival.
Cardasis has created a vibrant testament to what life can be like for a young LGBTQ person of color, and his inspiring and entertaining film is worth checking out.
For more information, visit samuelgoldwynfilms.com/saturday-church.