TFF2017: Saturday Church

Luka Kain as Ulysses in Saturday Church

Several words and phrases are bound to get used again and again in reviews of Saturday Church: "vibrant," "full of life," "surprising." But if these descriptors are predictable or cliché, the film they’ll be attached to is anything but. It's no exaggeration to say Saturday Church could be an instant classic. Just months after Moonlight's historic Oscar victory, this breathtakingly contemporary film with just one white cast members is worthy of praise, for that reason and so many others.

Director Damon Cardasis's film is a coming of age musical drama shot in New York and featuring several transgender actresses, including Indya Moore. It centers on Ulysses (Luka Kain), a young African American boy tentatively exploring his gender identity and sexuality in the wake of his father's death, and under the watchful eye of his forbidding Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor). He counters the taunts of homophobic classmates and the judgement of Rose by escaping to a vivid world of musical fantasy (the stirring songs are co-written by Cardasis and composer Nathan Larson). When he wanders from Christopher Street down to the pier, just as so many queer kids have before him, he meets the loving Dijon (Moore) and her group of close knit friends, most of them transgender street people. As the gang, especially sexy Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), encourages Ulysses to explore his true self, his dreams take a step closer to reality. But the harsh realities of his home life and other outside dangers threaten to tear down his fledgling spirit.

Marquis Rodriguez, Kain, and Indya Moore (second from right)

I can't recommend this movie enough. It vividly and sympathetically portrays the Black, transgender, sex worker, and gender nonconforming communities; there's also a supporting role by legendary trans activist Kate Bornstein. The acting, dancing, and singing are strong across the board, although the movie belongs to Kain, instantly lovable and sympathetic as the conflicted Ulysses. Kain nails every emotion and milestone Ulysses goes through, and with minimal dialogue. His chemistry with Rodriguez is potent and they share a sweepingly romantic interlude under the elevated subway tracks. The musical sequences somehow "come out of nowhere" and yet feel utterly right; they express complex emotions in a way Ulysses initially can't.

It's always nice to have a feature film that dramatizes the experiences of the LGBTQ community, particularly people of color. Saturday Church does this and so much more, standing as a superb and enchanting cinematic experience independent of its social significance.