A few nights ago, I enjoyed the movie SATURDAY CHURCH (from 2017). This is a sweet, interesting, sometimes uneven story about Ulysses, a gay African American fourteen-year-old living in NYC. He (possibly identifying as she, but this is never clearly indicated) finds his way into the local trans and drag show fashion community. Ulysses’ being gay and cross dressing is disapproved of by his strict, Catholic Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) and over-worked mother Amara (Margot Bingham), the father having died right before the start of the film. Not surprisingly, he’s bullied at school.
I enjoyed the periodic musical numbers as a device to show the main character’s colorful fantasy life. The ensemble cast of drag queens, most of whom work as prostitutes, are beautiful and sassy. They are all of Latinx or African American background. A lot of the supporting extra cast is also African American, in part because much of the story takes place in a largely Black and Brown neighborhood. This chosen family befriends Ulysses and proceeds to show him (her?) the ropes, including how to look fabulous in makeup.
Ulysses has a reluctant brush with prostituting himself for survival. The way this was filmed felt effectively upsetting, adding some believable grittiness to the story.
Veteran trans activist and writer Kate Bornstein has a small supporting role as the founder and mother hen of a weekly community center and soup kitchen for trans people. This social resource is open on Saturdays in a local church, hence the title of the film.
The acting was very good overall, with Luka Kain as Ulysses portraying a believably quiet, soft-spoken, depressed, feminine teenager. He comes more to life when doing voguing fashion moves while walking down the street, trying on high heels, and fantasizing about being the center of ensemble song and dance scenes in his urban environment. The attentions of his adorable love interest Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) also help to perk him up. Raymond is probably fifteen or sixteen, having also been “adopted” by the group of drag queens, possibly just months before Ulysses’ arrival into the fold.
SATURDAY CHURCH felt uneven in genre, shifting between musical to serious, slice-of-life drama. At first, this felt awkward but I either got used to it or the movie grew more graceful with transitions into and out of musical performances, dialogue, and Ulysses quietly navigating his fraught life. I looked up this film on Wikipedia, which describes it as a “musical fantasy drama.” Hybrid genre movies are produced here and there, I realize, but their grace of flow and emotional effectiveness are often hit or miss. Overall, this screenplay and production add up to making more of a hit than not, and are certainly impressive for a first feature by Damon Cardasis, who wrote and directed the project.
I particularly enjoyed the drag ball scene and the footage of drag queens on a runway during the end credits– so much fabulosity! I heartily approved.
I was left wanting a bit more, particularly further development of the relationship between Ulysses and his mother during the last part of the movie. Her sudden remorse and acceptance of him felt like an abrupt transition. Perhaps the budget did not allow for the production to be a little longer, which, if it were, would have lent more fullness and a sense of completion to the story for me.