What it's about: Ulysses is a teen struggling with his sexual identity. His family, his church, his peers, his culture all reject who he is, which has made him close himself off from the world around him. After the unexpected death of his father, his ultra conservative Aunt Rose comes to stay and help his overworked mother. Her strict attitude clashes with Ulysses, which drives him away from his house and fully into the subculture where he belongs. He befriends a group of transgender women who participate in a social program called "Saturday Church," which gives them a meal, a safe space off the street, and a loving community.
Saturday Church is a vibrant story of a beautiful community, told with incredibly authentic voices. It is essentially split between a stark coming-of-age queer story and flights of musical fantasy -- these halves make for a little bit of unevenness, but I can't fault the film for diving into everything will great passion.
The first musical number in the film comes about 10 minutes in and it caught me off guard. The sequence starts with a shot of magical realism, Ulysses floating through his high school locker room [established as an environment of bullying and fear], before bursting out in full song and dance. It was an unexpected moment because the introduction of the film and the character is so reserved and small.
The performers in this sequence are clearly not professional singers or dancers. Their movements are stagy and stiff. It comes off as so incredibly pure, however, not at all in a condescending or judgmental way. If star Luka Kain were on American Idol [that's still around, right?], he likely wouldn't make it very far, but in the context of the character and the way director Damon Cardasis so lovingly shoots the sequence, it is infectious.
The fact that Ulysses fantasizes this choreographed dance with his bullies is interesting, too, a celebratory act.
The fantasy elements of Saturday Church really pick up when Ulysses finds the title community. Even the moments aside from the musical fantasy as he becomes adopted by this group are incredibly beautiful and vibrant. The conversations they have don't feel performed even though it is easily identifiable that these aren't seasoned actors. There is an authenticity in their personalities. And for Ulysses, this is clearly the first time in his life that he has had role models who understand him; people he can ask about sex and love and relationships without being at risk.
The coming-of-age plot in Saturday Church isn't as joyous or as essential. The moments with his family are a little more simplified, feel less specific, and become melodramatic. Aunt Rose becomes the clear villain and too didactic a presence. Certainly, she represents a real point-of-view and an important character in the lives of someone like Ulysses, but her obvious villainy lacks the grace found in the rest of the film.
There is one specific scene outside of the Saturday Church group which is difficult for me to fully digest. At his lowest moment, Ulysses is now living out on the street and a random encounter leads to him turning a trick for the first time -- also likely his first sexual experience. The scene takes its time to develop and while it doesn't go anywhere explicit before it cuts away, it is appropriately awkward and sad and a little scary. This isn't a unique scene in a coming-of-age story, but it is well staged.
It is this type of scene that changes Ulysses to a stronger person by the end, a character with more damage and experience, but with a place to turn to. I could have honestly used more scenes within the Saturday Church community to make for a bigger character transition by the end. The final moment in the film, where Ulysses is about to perform in full drag, is an irresistible final image and I would have loved to see more of that. Saturday Church isn't the kind of movie that gets sequelized, but the continued journey into Ulysses fully comfortable within his skin would be awesome.
It is interesting to see the world depicted in Saturday Church making a strong cultural imprint recently. Of course, Rupal's Drag Race has found a strong audience for nearly a decade. A recent documentary, Strike a Pose, recounted the days when Madonna was at the fore-front of gay culture and "voguing" was something of a phenomenon. And in a few weeks, Ryan Murphy's Pose will take a look back at this world again -- interestingly, a few members of the Saturday Church cast will be regulars on that series. I'm not sure if the voguing lifestyle and culture coming back is part of the general 1980s nostalgia boom, but as Saturday Church proves, it can lead to some wonderful new stories from a community worthy of the spotlight.