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In Saturday Church, a Coming-of-Age Odyssey in Downtown New York

The first feature film by the writer-director Damon Cardasis, Saturday Church (which opens today in theaters after an acclaimed festival run) follows a sensitive, newly fatherless teen, Ulysses, on his own coming-of-age odyssey through New York City. Played with heartrending tenderness by 17-year-old Luka Kain, Ulysses sees the confusion and frustration of adolescence and raises its stakes by awkwardly, tentatively coming out—to himself, a newfound group of like-minded friends, and his mother (played by Margo Bingham)—as trans.
It’s a journey fraught with tension, drama, discovery (Kain’s on-screen kiss was his first), shame, redemption, and even grace. There’s also a little song and dance, as fantasy-like musical sequences are interspersed throughout the film, allowing us a glimpse inside the mind and heart of the quiet, withdrawn protagonist. Ulysses’s life takes him from locker-room hazing to dress-up sessions in his mother’s bedroom that quickly veer from joyous and exuberant to humiliating, as his pious Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor), brought in to care for Ulysses and his brother after their father’s death, rejects her nephew’s newfound discoveries. It’s only when he boards the subway and travels downtown to discover a group of kids grappling with similar identity questions (and an ad hoc community that welcomes them with open arms) that he’s able to at least glimpse a way forward—if not exactly guarantee his safe passage.
The idea for the film first came to Cardasis from his mother, an Episcopal priest in the Bronx, who brought her son’s attention to a real-life program at the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields in lower Manhattan that supports at-risk LGBTQ youth, many of them homeless, abused, and out of other options. Soon, Cardasis found himself volunteering there. “These are kids that had survived under brutal circumstances, but through finding community and being true to who they were, they were finding a way to persevere,” he says. “They were incredibly inspiring.”
The film’s early reception, both by critics and by the community it’s built around, has surprised even Cardasis. “They feel like their story and voice is finally being told,” he says. “I was hoping the film would unify people—but wasn’t expecting it to be so immediate or so close to home. One of our actresses reunited with her mother at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere—her mother finally told her that she was proud of her and has come to accept her as trans. It’s pretty incredible.” The film’s producers, Mandy Tagger Brockey and Adi Ezroni, while sold on Cardasis’s script, only truly saw the film living and breathing after spending some time at Saint Luke in the Fields.
“Damon’s script was so unique—it straddled the harsh realities of Ulysses’s life with magical realism, and we believed in Damon as a talent,” says Ezroni. “But when we went to see the real program and watched the kids voguing in the gym, we were completely hooked.” The local voguing community and ball culture are featured prominently in the film (sans any references to Madonna), and serve as a conduit of transformation for Ulysses. As he embraces the music and movements that set him free, he discovers a certainty about himself that helps him bridge the gap between lost and found. “I hope the film serves as a beacon of light to anyone who is struggling, whether it be with gender identity, sexuality, or anything else,” Cardasis adds. “And for anyone else, I hope it opens their hearts a bit more and shows how important it is to love and accept people. We’re all human, no matter our gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or anything else.”

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