Film Review: Saturday Church

Beautifully rendered musical drama-lite about a gay Bronx teen dealing with gender confusion and family resistance is an audience pleaser for viewers of all persuasions who value honesty and a job well done.
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Shot in New York’s divergent worlds of the Bronx and the West Village, Saturday Church is the work of debuting feature writer-director Damon Cardasis (a producer partnered with renowned filmmaker Rebecca Miller in Round Films), who fashions a cohesive picture of challenging contrasts that go beyond mere geography as a bright 15-year-old teen struggles with his identity and a repressive home life, no thanks to a religious zealot of an aunt.

While these elements might suggest a dive into grim sturm und drang of many a coming-out story and family drama, Saturday Church, from The Samuel Goldwyn Company, is indie to the core in lovely wrappings. It’s a colorful, positive, unapologetic take on finding that identity and comfort in an often hostile, complex world. As such, this Church—built with warmth instead of cold stonedeserves impressive attendance that word of mouth and solid critical response should encourage. The cast—loaded with impressive credits—is a big plus here, even without marquee names yet.

The teen angst, like most, begins at home and continues at school, where young Ulysses (a terrific Luka Kain), lithe, attractive and ill at ease, is bullied by some jock classmates. Also at home, in a comfortable Bronx apartment, he is spotted on gaydar when his bratty eight-year-old brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) discovers his infatuation with his mother Amara’s (Margot Bingham) high heels. She has just become a largely absentee mom following the passing of Ulysses’ beloved father, a sad circumstance requiring Amara to work long hours and his harsh, ultra-religious Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to tend more closely to the household.

Abe snitches on his brother to Aunt Rose, who, after a scolding, requires Ulysses to become an acolyte at their high Anglican Church. But he soon breaks loose with an evening foray to the West Village and its Hudson River pier where gays gather. There, friendly young trans woman Ebony (Mj Rodriguez) introduces him to her crowd and another church—the “Saturday Church” at nearby St. Luke’s that provides a weekend sanctuary for LGBTQ youth to gather and have supper.

Ebony’s clique includes transgendered Dijon (Indya Moore) and Heaven (Alexia Garcia), a lively, caring gaggle who charm Ulysses, as does young gay Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), with whom he just may acclimate romantically. Also significant among the group is Joan (Kate Bornstein), the transgender mother hen running the program and genuinely caring for her “kids.”

Ulysses returns home to the Bronx but immediately grows comfortable with these people, even as discussions turn to makeup and fashion. Up in the Bronx, crisis ensues after Aunt Rose discovers a pair of studded heels Ulysses bought and banishes him from the apartment.

Back on the Village streets but on a weekday when the haven of Saturday Church is not in session, Ulysses finds himself like a runaway on the Village streets and learns a little of the hard life there—benches or floors for sleeping and the shame that can be sex for sale.

As Ulysses deals with these new realities, including his own identity, he grows stronger, more confident and wise about family values. Above all, Saturday Church is a warm, frank examination of growing up and becoming independent, honest and proud. While serious in its themes, the film seamlessly integrates many original musical and dance numbers into its story as Ulysses “self-medicates” his teen misery with headphones and a rich imagination.

All performances are impressively strong and deeply affecting, with Kain, already boasting an impressive resumé, assuredly on an actor’s roll, assuming he wants that. Also notable are the well-chosen Bronx and West Village locations and eye-pleasing production design.

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