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January 12, 2018

Admirable ‘Saturday Church’ Is A Few Choir Boys Short Of A Hallelujah [Review]

A dour, grey-and-blue-hued high school. A cold house. The vibrantly red backroom of a church. The pulsating, glittery universe of a drag ball. These are the worlds a black, gay teenager claims in Damon Cardasis’ spirited “Saturday Church.” The film attempts to cohere myriad emotional complexities in just 80 minutes, and it half-succeeds. Like many first films, “Saturday Church” occasionally gives way to melodrama or loses track of its onerous plot. It also brings a lot of fresh material to the medium, though, particularly in the form of its standout cast of newcomers. In many ways, this Tribeca competitor is a must-watch, but too many missteps keep it from realizing its iconic potential.

“Saturday Church” follows Ulysses (Luka Kain), a taciturn fourteen-year-old in the midst of a grueling adolescence. His father has just died, so his beloved mother Amara (Margot Bingham, miscast by 20 years) takes on extra shifts to support the family. Amara enlists their authoritative Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to care for Ulysses and his brother while she is away. Amidst these familial changes, Ulysses is still coping with homophobic school bullies and figuring out how to feel his own gay desire within a conservative, religious culture. When he discovers Saturday Church, a gathering place catered to gay, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people, Ulysses’ claustrophobic world opens up — but he must keep his new joy and blossoming identity hidden from his homophobic family.

The film, a hodgepodge of musical theatre, coming-of-age, and family drama, is admirably ambitious. Writer-director Damon Cardasis clearly loves his protagonist: the spaces he envisions for Ulysses are rich and visceral, and Ulysses’ musical fantasy sequences are inventive. The way “Saturday Church” explores sexuality, blurring the line between gay and trans and making room for alternative gender expressions in gay culture, is groundbreaking. But the film is doing so much that it ultimately fails, ending up tedious and overwrought.

For a musical, the songs in “Saturday Church” — composed by Nathan Larson and co-penned by Larson and Cardasis — are scant and often forgettable. Those numbers that last longer than a few bars are surprisingly one-note, albeit beautifully choreographed. The duet between Ulysses and his crush Raymond (a darling Marquis Rodriguez) is too shallow to be truly endearing. What should be Ulysses’ transformative solo number, sung from the depths of a homeless shelter, is confoundingly dispassionate.

The film as a whole falls prey to that lackluster motif — “Saturday Church” could be fantastic, but, unlike its protagonist, it’s just not daring enough. Hillary Spera’s cinematography is vexingly by-the-book: dour spaces are blue and grey, nicer scenes are warmly lit. The film’s especially dramatic moments give way to flat melodrama, including the most flaccid slap in cinematic history. Its ending is so unrealistically, saccharinely neat you’ll want to tear your hair out. Where “Saturday Church” could provide revolutionary filmmaking to match its remarkable premise, instead it plays it safe. That blandness would be less frustrating in a worse film. Here, it’s downright aggravating.

Still, each performer in “Saturday Church” gives it their all. Luka Kain sings and sulks his way through all 80 minutes with the promise of a budding star, embodying Ulysses in a way that makes you genuinely care for him. MJ Rodriguez gives a standout turn as the street-wise Ebony, at once maternal and guarded. She delivers the film’s one great musical number, “Conditions of Love,” and leads its reprise, her strong voice and gripping presence undoubtedly contributing to each song’s haunting indelibility.

“Saturday Church” is a landmark film for gay and trans youth, particularly those navigating black and/or religiously conservative communities. This story deserves to be seen, Damon Cardasis should get another shot at the director’s chair, and this outstanding cast merits renown. Still, as a film, “Saturday Church” could so much more, and its disheartening shyness keeps it from achieving greatness. A few choir boys short of a hallelujah, “Saturday Church” feels more like a subdued sermon. You might be tempted to sleep in the following Sunday. [B-]

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