In its most profound moments, “Saturday Church” follows its searching young protagonist, Ulysses (Luka Kain) at the slightest remove, mirroring the distance he puts between himself and the world. It’s a place that’s been unkind to this soft-hearted teen who sneaks away from his father’s wake to try on a pair of strappy red heels, cracking the faintest smile as he holds them up to his grey Sunday best. Stepping into the shoes ever so gingerly, Ulysses wobbles briefly before admiring his reflection in the mirror. It’s a quiet moment, almost sacred, and one anyone who has ever furtively raided a parent’s closet will recognize.
Director Damon Cardasis delivers a gorgeous rendering of an oft-heard but rarely seen story of a Bronx-born teen who finds his queer family on the piers of New York’s West Village. A former gay cruising ground, the renovation of the Christopher Street piers forced some of the grittier elements underground (as the city intended). It remains a vital gathering place for homeless black and brown LGBTQ youth, who are often kicked out of their homes by homophobic parents. (Studies have shown that 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ).
Cardasis took inspiration from this community through volunteering with a weekly church program not unlike the one portrayed in the film. When Ulysses’ Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) comes to help out around the house, he and his younger brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) must adjust to a new disciplinarian. Aunt Rose expects a set table, even if it interrupts homework, and she certainly does not tolerate crossdressing. Neither does his mother, Amara (Margot Bingham), who urges him to cut it out.
Ulysses almost retreats before crossing the Westside Highway to the pier, but gains his footing and makes the leap. He meets a trio of transgender women; Ebony (Mj Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore), and Heaven (Alexia Garcia), who provide comic relief. (Heaven: “Tell me that’s not some Taraji P. Henson shit right there.”) Luckily for Ulysses, they also happen to roll with cutie-pie Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), who eyes him like a cool glass of water on a hot summer day. His new friends take him to a church that serves hot meals to homeless queer youth once a week, where he is greeted by Joan (played by none other than radical transgender activist and author Kate Bornstein).
When Aunt Rose discovers a new pair of heels in Ulysses’ room, she smacks him and tells him never to come back. He finally learns what his new friends go through every night, sleeping on the street and even turning a trick in one of the film’s more uncomfortable scenes. Ulysses must wait until Saturday to find his friends and queer family, who give him a fresh change of clothes and a hot meal.
“Saturday Church” uses a few elements of fantasy to indicate Ulysses’ interior life; after Raymond first kisses him, the subway steps are covered with colorful flower petals. Occasionally, someone breaks into song. The petals work better than the songs, which are too few and too short to claim the title of “musical.” The beats add a nice rhythm, but with nondescript lyrics like, “You’re gonna see me/you’re gonna know me,” the film would have been better off without going full “Hedwig.”
A producer of Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” (2015), which starred Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore, Cardasis had the means to fund a film about homeless queer youth. A white, gay, and cis man, he approaches Ulysses’ story as an outsider, and it shows. After such a gorgeous build-up to self discovery, the film never states how Ulysses identifies, ending on a glamorous reveal of Ulysses in full make-up about to walk his first ball. The question of his pronouns never comes up, and while Ulysses’ gender might be left intentionally ambiguous, it feels like a copout.
Still, Cardasis handles Ulysses with so much care throughout the film that “Saturday Church” will play like a warm hug to any young person questioning gender identity. Like a special episode of “Glee” for homeless queer youth, with an artful hand guiding the way, “Saturday Church” is the kind of movie that queer film needs now, more than ever.
“Saturday Church” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.