Damon Cardasis’ directorial debut is an honest exploration of queerness that wears its heart on its sleeve, even if it doesn’t quite achieve all its ambitions. Led with quiet confidence by Luka Kain, SATURDAY CHURCH is an admirably mature film that deserves to be seen by young audiences to better understand LGBTQ issues.
The film tells the story of black teenager Ulysses (Kain), having just lost his military father and seeking comfort in his forbidden desire to wear women’s clothes. Feeling repressed by kids at school and a family that doesn’t understand him nor seemingly wants to, he slowly gains confidence through a group of gay and transgender ‘outcasts’ who meet every week in ‘Saturday Church’.
The film’s greatest strength is in its casting. Kain possesses the delicate features and piercing eyes that command the screen, the most striking aspect of an otherwise restrained performance that best reflects a boy wary of revealing his true self. He receives strong support in the form of the Saturday Church members, with real trans actors cast for authenticity. MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore are particularly welcome additions, giving assured performances that prove the film industry would be wise to more openly embrace the trans community in higher profile roles. Some of the best moments are when the group take Ulysses under their wing, sharing snappy banter and gently applying lipstick to the boy. This acts as an initiation into their fold, as Dijon (Moore) jokes, ‘Let’s do some Princess Diaries shit.’
The dialogue is consistently grounded, with realistic conversations that feel relatable. However there are several moments that break into musical fantasy, acting as inner monologues for Ulysses to express his feelings at various points in the story. These sequences contain lively choreography, mixing contemporary dance with hip hop before snapping back to reality. The musical numbers don’t feel out of place exactly, but it would have benefitted if they were introduced earlier on. The songs themselves are somewhat mixed and rather forgettable. The film isn’t quite sure what it wants to be – hard-hitting drama or colourful musical about equality. However, the occasional lyrics are appreciated – Ulysses’ fantasy of being carried around a locker room by bullies, singing ‘hear me, see me, love me’ is of worthy note, as is the fact there is nothing wrong with the vocals. Margot Bingham briefly gets to show off her talent, for whom some will remember as the melancholic jazz singer Daughter Maitland in Boardwalk Empire.
Musical sequences aside, SATURDAY CHURCH is a rather subtle film. Characters’ feelings are often expressed without dialogue, relying on body language to help demonstrate the difficulties Ulysses’ family have in communicating with one another. The film is smart enough never to stray into melodrama, cementing the plot in real world issues that feels more than simple fiction. Even the most divisive scene, in which a hopeless Ulysses is confronted with prostitution, avoids being graphic or overly distressing. While not sufficiently resolved, this aspect does serve to highlight the extreme measures some young outcasts resort to in order to survive. Cardasis certainly doesn’t aim to make this another bleak depiction of LGBTQ lives, however. The most touching moments reveal a burgeoning relationship between Ulysses and the kind Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) and the story ends on a hopeful note which establishes a strong support group for the protagonist.
As a result of its compact runtime, the film has an aura of incompleteness. The conclusion is somewhat abrupt and the songs feel like they are still a work-in-progress. However, the good efforts by the cast and crew to deliver an important message of acceptance without patronising the audience. The small moments of intimacy alone make SATURDAY CHURCH a worthwhile watch.