Saturday Church: A Movie Review

Saturday Church, The Movie Musical: A Young Ulysses Finds Freedom in a New Tribe.

Or Aunt Rose is a Rose of a (Very) Different Color (and it ain’t pretty)

By Ross
The musical genre is always a good playground for stories that revolve around hidden or complex emotional responses to the cinematic world that swirls around its central characters. In Saturday Church, the musical film by writer/director Damon Cardasis (Producer of “Maggie’s Plan“), a young man by the name of Ulysses, portrayed quietly and a bit remotely by Luka Kain (2009’s “Adam“) is forced by circumstance to deal with his emerging sexuality and place within his family All at the same time. The musical form is the perfect vehicle for this pretty young character to begin to express and explore his sexual orientation and gender identity, especially because it is buried deep in shame and discomfort. This is a story we’ve seen before, but Cardasis has done a lovely job expanding it beyond issues revolving around sexual orientation and landing it in the more complex landscape of gender identity, without being too specific. Ulysses, in a attempt to cope with his emerging construct, creates moments of escape from his inner turmoil by receding into a fantastical internal life filled with song, dance, and flower power. It’s a touching and lovingly constructed film that uses beautifully subtle songs and expressive modern dance breaks (choreography: Loni Landon) to deepen our understanding of his exploration, even though at moments it lacks the polish and subtlety of something more expansive.  Saturday Church could benefit from a more detailed emotional core and complex dramatic structure, but generally it succeeds in portraying something real and emotionally engaging etched in the traumatized face of this angularly beautiful young adult.
Luka Kain.
Ulysses is pushed forward into a more adult role within the family when his army father dies leaving him to be thought of as the ‘man of the house’ by his loving mother. This might have been a moment of strengthening of his internalized sense of control, but the religious Aunt Rose rips away any chance of growth and ego stability as she cruelly tries to diminish him at every opportunity. She has volunteered to watch over him and his kid brother, Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) after school each day but decided to take a firmer stance with Ulysses in order to make him more of a god-fearing man. Played with a stereotypical level of menace and impatience by Regina Taylor (Machinal, TV’s ‘I’ll Fly Away’), her religious fervor is intense and overwhelming, chastising and sending him away at the moment of his greatest need. It feels like her portrayal could have been refined and made more complex as she is too easily made the target to lay full blame and judgement upon. She is not the only one given a heavy hand to bear. As the mother, portrayed with a strong sympathetic vibe by Margot Bingham (HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire‘) is shown at the beginning to be equally unsupportive in the way she talks to her eldest. She does manage to do a great job creating a home life that feels authentic and caring, until she gets wind of her son’s proclivities, and hurtles chastising and shame-inducing words onto the traumatized young man. Those scenes and lines seem to be coming from someone else’s less emotionally caring mother, not the more intelligent soul she has displayed earlier. A more subtle and complex response midway to her son’s experimentation with women’s clothes could have created a stronger semblance of conflict and difficulty, rather than relying on extreme reactions from both mother and aunt. But what this film lacks in curating nuance, it makes up for in its strong presentation of authentic personalities and situations. There are mothers and aunts just like these two, just as Ulysses depressive response to his situation may be truly accurate (the film is said to be based on a true story), but it doesn’t mean these creations are engaging solely because of their realism. Taking some dramatic license with these two might have opened up the complexities a bit wider.
Luka Kain.
Not surprisingly, Ulysess’s high school life is drenched with another form of bullying and name-calling that stings just as much as Aunt Rose’s. He is a prime target for harassment; quiet and private, and leaning towards a more feminine demeanor and physicality. A tense locker room scene though is instantly transformed in a moment of extreme stress from an unsafe environment into a song and dance number with Ulysses being hoisted up by his earlier tormentors as if he is Madonna in the ‘Material Girl’ music video. It’s an uplifting moment, but awkwardly, the music, the song, and the performance doesn’t match the exciting moment of freedom or the release of joy it should have spawned, lessening its power and connection. It’s a shame that the first number is the weakest of them all, but fortunately, if you make it deeper into this story, it only gets better and clearer in its sense of musical purpose and emotional investment. The lead is a bit one-note, stuck inside his pain and discomfort, and while that behavior and protective stance is as authentic and real as it comes, it also doesn’t help draw us in. His moments of song should have felt like an explosion of inner life, but it registers as just a bit more free and a tiny bit louder. And even as we strut our way into a more liberated Ulysses, his inner expansion doesn’t register outwardly as much as it could. It always feels locked up or weighed down.
Luckily, we stay on his side, hoping for salvation, holding our breathe waiting for an opening. After following a gay man along Christopher Street to the west side pier, he finally finds his tribe: a trio of transgender women and another young man who has a sweet flirty smile that is totally infectious. Hanging out on the piers chatting and bitching in way that registers as completely authentic, they see something they all recognize in Ulysses’s eyes. Hidden beneath the quiet and nervous stare, they ascertain the pain and fear in Ulysses’s heart, and gather him up. They quite lovingly take him to where he will belong, and because of this gang of four; Mj Rodriguez (Off-Broadway revival of Rent) as Ebony, Indya Moore (“Port Authority“) as Dijon, and Alexia Garcia as Heaven, Ulysses discovers Saturday Church. This place of community salvation is a weekly program for homeless LGBTQ youth, and within that church’s basement, run by the magnificent true life hero, trans godmother Kate Bronstein as Joan, he finds the peace and acceptance he has been craving. Besides learning the beautiful joy of lip gloss in a very touching moment, he also discovers love in the cute bright-eyed Raymond, played beautifully by the very talented Marquis Rodriguez (“Luke Cage”). Their breakout duet on the streets of New York, “(So Lost) Without You” is uplifting and intoxicating, bringing a smile to almost anyone’s face who knows about first love. And it is through Rodriguez’s beautiful voice that lifts that song up with joy and instills it with passion and care, filling the heart of Ulysses with hope and warmth.
Marquis Rodriguez, Luka Kain.
Not all is wonderful from that moment on,  a discovery by the aunt, sends Ulysses running out into the streets of New York City. Cardasis uses his desperation for a quick but honesty study in the world that awaits many young queer folk when they find themselves kicked out because of their identity.  Without being too heavy handed, we get a glimpse into how quickly a homeless LGBTQ teen can discover the limited options available for survival and the price to be paid for survival. But finally Saturday comes, and Ulysses is able to find sanctuary once again. The song sung by the Gang of Four, “Conditions of Love” sharing their pain of abandonment and rejection, trying to make Ulysses feel the love and safety of inclusion that Saturday Church represents is one of the highlights of this complicated moment. Cinematographer Hillary Fyfe Spera keeps the camera tight on their faces throughout this number, adding to the sense of intimacy and authenticity. It doesn’t always work throughout this film, but in this one important moment, it focuses us in on the troubled life these kids have had to overcome just to survive and sit at that table alive and with hope. Nathan Larson’s score strengthens that moment, creating something that is extremely touching and highly thought provoking.
Once again, the musical form is utilized to show a tender exploration of inner thoughts and feelings that struggle to fly freely. Ulysses is trapped inside his head, waiting for a moment when he can come out and release his wonderfulness into the world.  Saturday Church saves him, and only through the power of not fighting the battle for acceptance all on his own, does he discover the passion and joy that was inside him all along. The mother does get the final song, and one of the most beautiful, “Come Sun or Come Rain“, declaring her unconditional love for her child, but it’s in Ulysses‘s eyes that we see a release of shame that was holding him down. With that declaration of love from his mother, Ulysses will walk taller and stronger, even in those high heels he so desperately wants to strut down the runway in. Freedom from shame is a beautiful life altering thing, and this movie helps bring that sense of acceptance and release to all that need it. And even a few who didn’t know they did.
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.

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