Luka Kain in Saturday Church (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Fourteen-year-old Ulysses’s father, a soldier, has recently died overseas, and now his mother, Amara (Margot Bingham), has to work double shifts to make ends meet, so his Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) steps in to take care of him and his younger brother, Abe (Jaylin Fletcher). From the beginning, it’s obvious Aunt Rose has ulterior motives in interloping as she signs Ulysses up to be an acolyte at church without consulting him. Her every look directed at the poor kid, sharply over her eyeglasses, says what she’s thinking—that boy needs Jesus.

What Ulysses really needs is new pantyhose. The ones he stole out of his mother’s laundry are torn all to hell. He wears these underneath his jeans as we see him changing in the stall in the locker room before gym class. Otherwise he would get heckled from the class bullies—well, more heckled. Clearly the word is already out that Ulysses is gay, but he assumes it’s best not to give the bullies anymore fuel for their taunts.

Ulysses is getting it from all directions: the boys at school, his conservative Aunt Rose, and even from his little brother, who tattles on him when he finds him trying on his mom’s high heels. His mother, whom you’d suspect to be more understanding, tells him, “This needs to stop. Things are hard enough as it is.” There’s a larger meaning in that statement; it echoes the homophobic criticisms against being both black and queer: Why would you want to have another stigma against you?

Clearly Ulysses understands that he is gay; it’s his family that has a problem with it. So he wises up and takes the subway to the West Village and starts hanging out on the Christopher Street Pier, where he meets a band of fellow gay and trans kids who look to be in their later teen years or early twenties. Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), the sage ringleader of the group, notices Ulysses’s eavesdropping and invites him into the fold. Next, they are off to a place they call “Saturday Church,” a once-a-week free dinner for wayward queer youth in the basement of a church.

If you’ve seen the 1990 classic documentary Paris Is Burning or last year’s Kiki, then you’re aware of the voguing scene in New York City. You’re also aware of the problems faced by transgendered youth in the African American community. Writer-director Damon Cardasis’s first feature film is a fictionalized take on the story of one young teen struggling with these issues. And fittingly, it’s also a musical.

The musical elements sneak in unexpectedly. Ulysses will be pondering something or listening to someone tell their life story, and suddenly that person’s monologue will turn into song. The subtly of how these slip in and add more depth to a character—rather than turn the sequence into a spectacle—is a refreshing take on the genre. There are roughly 20 minutes between the first and second songs, and when they occur, they are brief and understated. But the numbers fit well with the themes make this a charming film. Think the midsection of Moonlight meets High School Musical.

Featuring a strong lead performance by Luka Kain, and some pretty profound moments among its many players, this film has legs. While so many queer films historically have been about finding families to replace the estranged ones, it’s revelatory that so many now are about blending the new with the old. Although it would probably be rated R for language, Saturday Church ranks as a relevant family film for this moment in the history of queer youth.

Written and Directed by Damon Cardasis
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films
USA. 82 min. Not rated
With Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, MJ Rodriguez, Peter Kim, Evander Duck Jr., and Marquis Rodriguez