'Saturday Church': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

Sweet and soulful.

Debuting writer-director Damon Cardasis threads introspective songs and dance interludes into a tender coming-of-age story of queer identity exploration.

The transfixing mix of poetic intimacy, emotional depth and searing compassion in last year's Moonlight made it a towering landmark among screen depictions of the struggles of young gay men. But as a subgenre, the LGBTQ coming-out/coming-of-age drama tends more often to fall into familiar grooves. That makes Damon Cardasis' heartfelt mini-musical, Saturday Church, all the more endearing as it escapes into interior-monologue numbers and expressive dance breaks to mark out the exploration of sexuality and gender identity of a Bronx teenager, played with lovely subdued intensity by newcomer Luka Kain.

With his delicate, angular features and piercing eyes, Kain is a compelling central presence as Ulysses, whose warm home life is shaken by the death of his serviceman father. His mother, Amara (Margot Bingham), has to start working nights to cover the bills, so she relies on Ulysses' Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to watch over him and his kid brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) after school each day. But Rose is a conservative disciplinarian, with little patience for Ulysses' moody silences.

Cardasis brings a sensitive eye to the subject, painting a textured picture of Ulysses' solitude and his hunger for self-knowledge. He secretly wears stockings stolen from his mother's closet under his school clothes. And he absorbs the insults and humiliations of locker-room bullies, retreating into liberating fantasy as he sings "You're gonna see me/You're gonna know me/You're gonna love me," while his tormentors dance around him with explosive adolescent physicality — both awkward and oddly graceful.

Tension increases at home when Abe walks in on Ulysses trying out poses in their mother's red velvet heels; it's clearly not the first time he's been caught sampling from her closet. When Aunt Rose learns of the incident, she threatens to beat any future such transgressions out of him, sternly informing her nephew, "You are a man!" As an antidote to his effeminate behavior, she signs him up as an acolyte at her church.

Meanwhile, Ulysses starts venturing downtown on the subway to Christopher Street in the West Village. He follows other black teens to the pier, where he watches from a cautious distance as a tight alternative family unit of gay and transgender youths swaps affectionately bitchy banter. The group includes big-sisterly Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), faux-frenemies Dijon (Indya Moore) and Heaven (Alexia Garcia), and cool, quiet Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), whose gentle flirtation with Ulysses injects a nice understated romantic frisson.

They take the newcomer along to "Saturday Church," a weekly community program where homeless LGBTQ youth are fed and clothed by trans godmother Joan (Kate Bornstein) and her volunteers, while others dance and vogue in the adjacent gym space.

Not all the actors are equally unselfconscious, but there's a disarming authenticity to these scenes, and to the vivifying sense of solidarity among the characters as they casually discuss common experiences of being shut out of their homes, robbed in shelters or drifting into sex work. Cardasis observes the milieu with grit and honesty, but also with a light touch, disdaining campiness even when Dijon decides it's makeover time for Ulysses: "Let's do some Princess Diaries shit!" The look of joy that spreads over his face when he sees his glistening pink lips in a mirror is enchanting.

Naturally, this new parallel secret world of belonging soon spills over into Ulysses' life at home with ugly results when Aunt Rose makes another discovery that sends her nephew running. Unable to find his Saturday Church friends midweek, he ends up in a shelter and then alone on the streets, getting his first taste of transactional sex. Without hammering the point, the film shows how easy it is for LGBTQ kids at their most vulnerable to find themselves drawn into increasingly narrow options.

But this is a musical, so while things turn grim for a while, the destination, unsurprisingly, is one of community, acceptance and fortified family bonds — if not with intransigent Aunt Rose.

In addition to Nathan Larson's shimmering score, the songs he contributes heighten the story's emotions quite effectively. Even if the lyrics, co-authored with Cardasis, are generally more literal than imaginative, songs like "Conditions of Love" (sung first as a solo by Ebony and then reprised by the whole group) convey the quest for outsider acceptance with stirring feeling, while Amara's "Come Sun or Come Rain" is a touching declaration of a mother's unconditional love.

A dreamy ballet in the shelter scene (Loni Landon did the loose, fluid choreography) makes for an aching counterpoint to the fierce runway attitudinizing of voguing scenes in which Ulysses first perceives the empowering potential in his sexuality. And who wouldn't want their first passionate teenage kiss followed by a duet titled "(So Lost) Without You"? That number, sung by Ulysses and Raymond, is a pure, invigorating blast of sweet young intoxication.

Cinematographer Hillary Fyfe Spera has a slight tendency to cramp the musical numbers, but the close camerawork pays off elsewhere in terms of intimate character access. That's most notable with Ulysses, invested with raw yearning by Kain, but also with his new support network. Blending sensitive drama with musical fantasy and a heart worn unapologetically on its sleeve, Saturday Church is a modest charmer that plays almost like a narrative response to last year's feature documentary Kiki, about the New York voguing scene. Young gay and gender-questioning audiences will definitely want to strike the pose.

Production companies: Spring Pictures, Round Films, in association with 19340 Pictures
Cast: Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, Marquis Rodriguez, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia, Kate Bornstein, Jaylin Fletcher, Peter Kim
Director-screenwriter: Damon Cardasis
Producers: Mandy Tagger Brockey, Adi Ezroni, Damon Cardasis, Rebecca Miller
Executive producers: Sharon Chang, Luigi Caiola, Isabel Henderson, Lia Mayer-Sommer
Director of photography: Hillary Fyfe Spera
Production designer: Jimena Azula
Costume designer: Megan Spatz
Music: Nathan Larson
Lyrics: Nathan Larson, Damon Cardasis
Editor: Abbi Jutkowitz
Choreographer: Loni Landon
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)

Sales: CAA, WestEnd Films

82 minutes