This past awards season, the films La La Land and Moonlight duked it out for more awards, culminating in one of the biggest Oscar fiascoes in history. Now comes a film that combines the best elements of both movies: Saturday Church.
Much as Moonlight flung open the windows on the queer, African-American experience, Saturday Church is the coming-of-age story of Ulysses, a young, African-American teen living in New York. Having just buried his beloved father, Ulysses struggles with his own sexual and gender awakening, sneaking around the house in his mother’s high heels, and stopping off in a cemetery, the only place private enough to masturbate to a men’s health magazine. As his mother struggles to balance work and family life, Ulysses must face his domineering, abusive Aunt Rose, who moves in to help with the family.
All of this might sound depressing, and to some extent, it is. But Saturday Church finds a wonderful way to balance out its tone. Just like La La Land, the film uses music as an opportunity for levity, hope and resilience, and to further explore the psychology of its characters. Yes, a movie about an adolescent dealing with the death of his father, an abusive aunt and a sexual awakening is a musical.
Even better: the pop soundtrack far surpasses that of La La Land both in terms of musical quality, and in terms of the insight it grants to its characters. Luka Kain as Ulysses shows off a beautiful voice. Complete with elaborate song and dance numbers, Saturday Church explodes with brightness and spectacle as Ulysses stumbles on the New York Drag Ball scene. There, he meets a group of friends—both cis and transgender—who help guide him into a world where he can flourish. His first, tentative tender kiss with another street kid is a nothing short of beautiful.
Saturday Church never quite achieves the grittiness of a film like Paris is Burning, though it does explore the same darker themes that made that documentary so powerful. Ulysses’ older friends caution him about the perils of living as an openly genderqueer, gay person, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the darkness of that reality. Most of all though, the film maximizes its impact with a treasure of wonderful performances led by cast members Kain as Ulysses, and Margot Bingham as Amara, Ulysses’ mother. Transgender icon Kate Bornstein also delivers a memorable turn as Joan, a sort of den mother to the film’s queer youth.
Writer-director Damon Cardrasis refreshes the queer coming-of-age tale with style, tenderness and some terrific music . The film may not generate the same level of praise or awards as either La La Land or Moonlight, though it certainly matches both of those films in terms of creativity and sincerity. The movie has as much originality and heart as either film, and should provide an entertaining, moving experience to any that has ever savored a first kiss, secretly wished to try on make-up or, for that matter, wished for something fresh and original at the movies.
Update 9/6/17: We’re happy to report that Saturday Church has received distribution for theatrical and VOD release by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. The current release is scheduled for January 2018.