Saturday Church is a racially and sexually diverse rumination on identity that defies simple definition in its low-key elegance. It’s a bold debut from writer/director Damon Cardasis, whose decision to milk his small budget for every ounce of creative color and sound that it could bear never stretches the film thin, only inflates it like a multicolored hot air balloon. Half musical and half drama, it finds balance in poetic stillness and exuberant motion.
The film, like Moonlight—its inescapable comparison—tracks black masculinity in self-discovery mode. Luka Kain, a star-ready relative newcomer so fresh that his voice dropped during filming, plays Ulysses—and, yes, the film quickly becomes his New York City odyssey. Ulysses has closeted gender dysphoria (for the sake of a clarity the movie majestically refuses, I will be using him/his pronouns for this review): He acts mechanically uncertain when putting on a boyish face for the world, only truly feeling graceful, beautiful and whole in a pair of his mother’s heels.
The problem is—well, the never-ending avalanche of problems are—that Ulysses is black and expected to be a man’s man as he’s raised, along with his younger brother, by a newly single mother (Margot Bingham). Additional conservative pilings-on come from Ulysses’ Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor), whose faith and unintentional cruelty are all too familiar in someone with Taylor’s self-satisfied and authoritative delivery.
From this struggle and repression bursts music. Love and pain bubble up in numbers showcasing DIY aesthetics and Broadway caliber pipes, only for the film’s realism to drag us back to Earth. Fiery boldness and cold reality intermingle in a story brewed from its inexperienced protagonist’s catalytic encounter with seasoned members of the LGBTQ community, caught in a warm palette and excitable single-camera cinematography. Ulysses begins exploring himself and the wide world of NYC queerdom, as the lingering shots of his face bridge his interior and the expression of his adventurous plans. Fear and doubt melt away as soon as he develops the courage to experiment and explore niches of his inner life exteriorly. When he goes to a pier known for trans sex workers and befriends a few merely with his meek insecurity, his unspoken identity struggles are immediately obvious. They take him to a local shelter/hangout known as Saturday Church.
A cast loaded with talent builds an LGBTQ community refined by depth and real details (such as those of trans characters played by trans actresses who went through their transition in NYC). Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore) and Heaven (Alexia Garcia) are the queens of Christmas Future who take Ulysses under their fabulous wings and quite literally embody what he could be. A nudge here, some tips there and Ulysses seems more and more taken with the makeup and glamour of the drag scene. All the while he’s busy crushing on pretty boy Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez, another breakout), with whom he shares a tender song shot in a gorgeously rendered single take. Saturday Church’s choreography reflects the emotions at play: The duet between Raymond and Ulysses churns and bucks wildly as the camera revolves around its whirlwind lovers. It’s endearingly low-tech set design, props and costumes enhance rather than hide its stars.
After an altercation between aunt and nephew, Saturday Church explores just how easily and rapidly someone can spiral out without the small privilege of Ulysses’ family and home. It’s a terrifying, relatable, shellshocking experience that rubs our noses in the reality these magical songs, costumes and performances (in either the film or the mini-dances put on by Saturday Church) exist in part to help Ulysses escape. Saturday Church never shies away from harsh, mean reality, but thankfully finds depth and beauty in rising above it.
Saturday Church has the heart of Paris is Burning’s joyous, performance-as-lifeline NYC ball culture; there’s a gap-bridging here between that film’s gang-like Houses and Saturday Church’s semi-stable household, an acknowledgement that these identity issues could sink anyone regardless of status. Saturday Church is a reassuring celebration for young queer people with or without support systems, focusing on its protagonist’s self-discovery and the not-so-secret trauma that almost always comes along with it.
The trauma isn’t the point, though: This is not a film that lingers, but one that looks forward. Secretive voguing practice while Ulysses shines thuribles in his aunt’s repressive church is a metaphor for all closeted people making their way through the world hoping they will find compromise and acknowledgement in the systems built to oppress them. The film’s spectacular songs and unexpectedly happy ending are a defiant fist raised high.
Director: Damon Cardasis
Writer: Damon Cardasis
Starring: Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, Marquis Rodriguez, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.