STARRING: Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, Peter Y. Kim
DIRECTOR: Damon Cardasis
WRITER: Damon Cardasis
Starring relative newcomer Luka Kain, Saturday Church follows Ulysses, a Black teenager in New York City struggling to keep his homosexuality and affinity for women’s clothing a secret from his strictly conservative Aunt (Regina Taylor), and overworked unawares mother (Margot Bingham) after his father dies. Eventually, he’s drawn to a group of drag queens by the pier who invite him to Saturday Church, a group of queer, trans teens who have no support system back home, where he slowly starts to find acceptance and understanding of an identity he’s been forced to hide for his entire life.
It’s a largely hopeful movie, although it doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of what happens when a support system you can only see once a week can’t be there when one needs it most. In the post-screening Q&A, first-time writer-director Damon Cardasis spoke about how he deliberately sent the script around to members of the real-life church group that the film was based on, as well as GLAAD and others, in order to ensure that the results were as respectful as possible. One could argue that the film is maybe too respectful, particularly with regards to its ending – although that’s just a difficult tightrope for these stories to walk regardless – but the film’s understated nature and refusal to sensationalise or tip into melodrama is what keeps it from being condescending. Cardasis pulls off the neat trick of starting off with his camera somewhat at a distance from almost everything, before bringing the viewer closer and closer into the underground queer and trans scene of New York the more comfortable that Ulysses becomes both there and in his own skin. Kain is also a real find of an actor; there were multiple times throughout the film where I just wanted to reach through the screen and give him a big old hug, the pained conflict and awkward uncertainty cutting right through me.
Saturday Church suffers from two problems, however. The first can largely be put down to debut filmmaking jitters. Church runs 82 minutes, but Cardasis paces the film like it’s 102, and so the moment that the film lurches into the Third Act, it starts to tangibly feel like the budget was nearly gone, with anything that doesn’t immediately advance us to the next major sequence being left unfilmed. Which is fine, it doesn’t hurt the film too much. Far more of an issue comes from the film’s main conceit: it’s kind of a lousy musical. Yes, Saturday Church is also a musical, although you’d be forgiven for forgetting that for long stretches. I counted five songs overall, six if you also count the customary Dark Reprise, one of which is about four lines long, all of which straddle the awkward line between fantasy and super-realist in a way that makes it seem like they’re just unsure of which they’re primarily going for, and none of which are honestly very good. I’d find myself getting invested in the drama on screen, completely forgetting the musical aspect, and then a song would turn up semi-out-of-nowhere and I’d just roll my eyes waiting for it to be over so we could get back to this realist heartfelt drama.
Still, it’s not a bad debut, and the drama is strong enough to mostly overcome the underwhelming musical aspects, especially thanks to Kain’s lead turn. Maybe don’t have the best musical sequence in your musical be a non-sung montage set to a non-original song next time, though.
Tomorrow: Michael Haneke returns with Happy End, and the world’s first entirely-painted animated feature previews at the Festival in the form of Loving Vincent.