From man of the house to kid on the streets, “Saturday Church” shines the spotlight on the challenges a young teenager faces to discover who he is and where he belongs.
Luka Kain beautifully plays the protagonist Ulysses, whom we first meet at the funeral of his father. We are then quickly introduced to the rest of the remaining family members. Ulysses’s mother Amara (Margot Bingham), Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor), and little brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) are all coping with the loss of the family patriarch in different ways. Amara has to pick up extra shifts to presumably keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Aunt Rose has magically appeared to support the family by holding down the fort while Amara works. However, both Ulysses and Abe struggle with Aunt Rose’s regimented structure and overly strict approach to pretty much everything.
We first get a glimpse of why it might be even harder for Ulysses to live with Aunt Rose when he sneaks into the bathroom before gym class to change because… wait for it… he’s wearing women’s pantyhose beneath his jeans. Next we find him sneaking into his mom’s room while she is at work to try on her (admittedly gorgeous) high heels. It doesn’t take long to find out how the family feels about Ulysses’s earnest exploration. Abe reminds him harshly that their mom (and dad) disapprove, and then tattles on him. Aunt Rose takes it to a whole new level when she scolds him, “You are a man. And you better start acting like one.”
The movie continues to unfold as his curiosity grows, the tension at home increases, and he connects with a trio of welcoming transgender women: Ebony (Mj Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore), and Heaven (Alexia Garcia), as well as the handsome and kind Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez). In a world that doesn’t welcome his differences, he uses his vivid imagination as an escape and coping mechanism, bringing the viewer into fanciful musical-inspired interludes in a gym locker room and homeless shelter.
“Saturday Church” could easily be the love-child of “Moonlight” and “La La Land”. But as much as I appreciated the underlying theme, I really struggled with its execution. The transition between dialog and musical numbers felt awkward and jarring, and the music itself wasn’t that catchy (it’s definitely no “Mamma Mia”). I experienced a similar uncomfortable contrast between the rich characters and plot that developed within the LGBTQ community at Saturday Church and the relatively underdeveloped and shallow character arcs elsewhere. The plot line that frustrated me the most was why horrible Aunt Rose had to come and live with the family. It just seemed like such a tired trope to have a “wicked” substitute parental appear on the scene to treat Ulysses badly. Were there really no other options? And while the end was ridiculously heartwarming (who doesn’t want to hear, “Just know that I love you. Don’t ever question that” from their mom?), it was such a 180º shift for Amara from her previous expressions that it felt unnatural and insincere.
I did love the use of flowers throughout the movie. Each time Ulysses takes a step towards owning his identity, the flower petals around him get brighter and more plentiful … from a few petals that fall off a branch as he walks by early on in the film to a pile that reaches up to his knees as he reconciles his identity for himself. As I was researching the film, it also made me really happy to learn that the cast included a legit trans trailblazer, Kate Bornstein (who plays Joan, the leader of Saturday Church).
Overall, even though “Saturday Church” isn’t quite what I hoped it to be, it is still as lovable as Ulysses himself is. I hope that anyone struggling with their identity can find a welcoming community like Ulysses did, and that this movie will give them comfort and hope.
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.