“Saturday Church,” writer-director Damon Cardasis’ first feature, is a tender coming-out story that doubles as an intimate musical. It tells the story of 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain), who finds himself chafing against the gender role he is expected to inhabit, of being a man in the most traditional sense — a role that doesn’t permit trying on his mother’s heels in private.
As Ulysses goes to church every Sunday morning, he struggles to find a place where he can fully be himself. Ulysses finds such a place in Saturday Church, a sanctuary for people who never quite fit their parents’ expectations of gender or sexuality. At Saturday Church, he finds companionship and mentorship among a group of runaways and sex workers; it is a place where he can open up, where he has the freedom to figure out who he is. What follows is an honest portrayal of the joy and fear inherent in coming out.
This may only be Kain’s second film, his first being a small role in “Adam,” but his performance is the heart of “Saturday Church.” Remarkably, Kain manages to portray delicacy and strength often in the same glance, demonstrating an acute understanding of the inner life of his character. Through Kain’s performance, we see how the majority of the film’s tension and conflict stems from Ulysses’ family’s resistance of his identity, rather than his struggle to accept himself.
Transgender actress Mj Rodriguez is likewise astounding to watch. Cardasis cast transgender actors as transgender characters — a policy the rest of Hollywood would do well to adopt — and the importance of such a casting policy is evidenced by Rodriguez’s nuanced portrayal of Ebony, Ulysses’ mentor. Though she isn’t quite a generation older than him, she carries experience. She becomes a sort of promise, as we realize she and her friends survived all the obstacles placed in front of Ulysses. There is a sweet sincerity to this promise that rings throughout the film.
More importantly, though, the fact that Rodriguez’s casting is notable speaks to the the disparity of privilege in the LGBTQ+ community. As per an interview with Deadline, Cardasis said, “Not everyone has the same rights and privileges — even within the minority.”
Cardasis also succeeds in the depiction of Ulysses’ interior journey, which he accomplishes by leaning into the dichotomy of Ulysses’ life. For instance, a scene in which Ulysses paints his face for the first time is immediately followed by a shot of Ulysses performing his duties as an altar boy. As the film progresses, his family’s traditions and his own gender and sexuality begin in bleed into one another — Ulysses practices voguing in the church and on the streets. The behavior he once only allowed himself under the cover of night moves into the light.
The film’s sense of interiority is buttressed by outbursts of exteriority — “Saturday Church” is technically a musical, with multiple characters breaking into song. Yet, the musical interludes do not jar us out of the film’s reality; they are an escape, a glimpse into the innermost lives and desires of the characters. The music largely forgoes flair in favor of vulnerability, especially through songs like “(So Lost) Without You” and “Conditions of Love”.
Ultimately, “Saturday Church” is an LGBTQ+ coming-of- age story done right. It does not sugarcoat the harsh realities many LGBTQ+ youth (especially trans youth and people of color) face, such as abuse, rejection and homelessness. At the same time, the film is not ultimately a story of despair. Hollywood seems to struggle with how to depict LGBTQ+ character as anything other than tragic — a depressive and damaging trend of representation for LGBTQ+ youth.
Cardasis, though, manages to find balance. There is tragedy yes, but, at the risk of sounding cliche, it really does get better for all the Ulysses of the world.
“Saturday Church” is currently available on demand and on all digital platforms.