Ulysses is a quiet and infinitely shy teenager, a sensitive soul who doesn’t fit in with his peers, and feels increasingly like an outcast as he progresses through his formative high school years. We spend large amounts of time with him, yet rarely get to hear him express himself – and due to being born with effeminate features, he’s the subject of casual bullying without even opening his mouth, as well as being treated with suspicion by members of his own, deeply religious family. No prizes for guessing that, over the course of the coming of age drama Saturday Church, the audience gets to see the character blossom in to a state of self acceptance, even if the character is still too young and inexperienced to fully know the person he is to become.
Luka Kain plays Ulysses, who is dealing with the fallout from the death of his father, the torment from school bullies and the religious condescension of his aunt, who has previously caught him dressing up in his mother’s clothes. After a tense family argument, he finds himself wandering over to some of NYC’s most LGBT-friendly areas, where he befriends a diverse (mostly transgender) group who frequent the Saturday Church service weekly. Here, he finds a potential relationship, a gateway in to a welcoming community, and an escape from the oppression of day to day inner city life.
Damon Cardasis’ directorial debut is at its best when its nothing more than an intimate character study, our lead character evading discussing his feelings, even though his emotions are clear as day through his facial expressions. Luka Kain’s performance manages to be expressive without being overly verbally communicative – it’s one of the most subtle leading roles imaginable, but the closed-off, repressed nature of the character gives the drama an edge that helps it stand out in a crowded field of coming of age LGBT dramas.
There is never a conclusive moment where the character announces his identity, never overtly stating whether he’s merely gay, as opposed to being either gender fluid or a closeted transgender woman (all three scenarios are hinted towards). Instead of becoming frustrating, this ambiguity is why the film works – at the age of 14, Ulysses is still figuring out his own identity, and becoming a comfortable member of the local LGBT community is merely the first step towards a self realisation that continues long after the end credits roll, and the film has finished playing.
Cardasis was formerly a volunteer at a Saturday Church for the LGBT community, meaning many of the details here are based on lived-in experience. The second half of the film, for example, delves in deeper to the harsh reality of homeless LGBT youth, in a manner more suitable for younger viewers than the similarly themed Hooked (which I reviewed for Gay Essential earlier), while still feeling equally well researched. Cardasis also triumphs in terms of casting – not only is Kain a perfect fit for the lead role, he has made the decision to cast transgender performers in transgender roles, an action that is sadly still rare even in 2018.
Saturday Church does feel tailor made for teenage viewers, exploring themes of gender identity and sexuality in a manner that doesn’t feel explicit or exploitative, even if it doesn’t sugarcoat the reality. What the film does do, however, is increasingly transform in to a musical as the narrative progresses – although this helps the film stand out stylistically, the songs being performed don’t feel of a piece with the expeditions to balls in NYC, that predominantly feature different genres of dance music. Yes, the songs are performed well and show off the impressive vocal range of the versatile ensemble cast. But outside of the intended target audience (who will definitely be heading to Spotify to download the soundtrack immediately), these sequences will prove to be significantly more controversial, uneasily sitting next to a brilliantly understated drama for some viewers, while complimenting the rush of teenage emotions for others. I’m in the former camp, but I can perfectly understand why you could be easily won over by these fantastical interludes.
In summary, Saturday Church is an effectively performed and believably written coming of age drama – one that wisely takes the decision to leave the character’s struggles with family and religion (practically stereotypical themes in LGBT cinema) in the background to fully explore him beginning to understand his sexuality and gender identity. Despite the extravagant musical numbers, it’s really a low key charmer; the lead character may be quiet, but his story so subtly effective, it’ll stay with you long after the end credits roll.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films