Change at any age is often difficult to navigate. As a teenager when you are trying to determine who you are as a human being while unpacking all of the thoughts and emotions that are running rampant through your heart and brain; major life changes can feel insurmountable. In Damon Cardasis’ coming of age musical drama “Saturday Church,” 14-year old Ulysses (newcomer Luka Kain in an absolutely magnetic performance) comes to terms with his father’s death while grappling with his gender identity.
While his mother Amara (Margot Bingham) takes on extra shifts at her job to try and make ends meet, Ulysses and his precocious younger brother, Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) are left in the care of their vicious and unyielding Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor). Stifled and suppressed in his home, by a mother who is barely present, a younger brother who is screaming for attention, and an aunt who tries to beat the femininity out of him, Ulysses leaves his Bronx home each weekend and ventures downtown to seek solace with the ladies who roam The Christopher Street Pier and come together at Saturday Church.
At Saturday Church, Ulysses isn’t consumed with lectures from his mother because he’s stolen a pair of her pantyhose, nor does he have to contend with Abe’s rambunctious behavior. He can also shed the mask that he puts on every Sunday to act as the alter boy at Aunt Rose’s church. With Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore) and Heaven (Alexis Garcia), the shy and painfully quiet Ulysses blossoms. Over warm meals, makeup tips and tales of their own lives, the 14-year old finds comfort in his new friends, and perhaps even love with Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez). Though his new group of friends are much older, jaded and wear their pain in their eyes, for Ulysses, they become family.
And yet, “Saturday Church’s” narrative doesn’t quite feel fully fleshed out. Despite being gorgeously shot, the oddly timed musical sequences pulled me out of the narrative and left me feeling bewildered. Additional dialogue or better developed character arcs, specifically when it comes to Aunt Rose’s motivations, would have grounded the audience into the story more completely. Instead, everything seems to happen at once. Ulysses’ double life implodes around him as the film races toward an ending.
One particularly difficult scene to deconstruct in “Saturday Church” occurs after Aunt Rose discovers Ulysses’ high heels stored under his bed. LGBTQ youth have had violent encounters such as the one depicted here. Suicide and homeless rates would not be as astronomical for the community if these things did not happen. However, Aunt Rose’s explosive reaction seems to come out of nowhere. Her cruelty is unfounded, and the agency that she gives herself over her nephews without consulting their mother is baffling. She’s a villain without a back-story, while their mother Amara, despite being overworked, simply seems aloof. As a result, both women act as fixtures instead of completely realized characters.
As much as “Saturday Church” is Ulysses’ coming of age story, director Cardasis also pays homage to the organizations like the one his protagonist finds shelter in, that feed, clothe and house members of the LGBTQ community when they have nowhere else to turn. “Saturday Church” also highlights ballroom culture, elements of sex work and violence that transgender and queer people, particularly queer people of color, must contend with. Though unwieldy at times, the film never loses sight of Luka Kain’s vibrant but vulnerable performance as the meek Ulysses who is the anchor that keeps the film on beat.
“Saturday Church” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Sunday, April 23, 2017.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami