Saturday Church

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Saturday Church
"Kain's finely judged performance is a joy to watch."

Growing up as a black boy in urban America is challenging enough, especially in a cash-strapped single parent family, without having to face other kinds of prejudice as well. Ulysses (Luka Kain) is an older sibling so also has a share of responsibility for his younger brother, though his mother has decided to bring in a more distant relative to watch the two of them; it's suggested that she's been concerned for some time after catching Ulysses trying on her clothes. "It won't happen again," he assures her, and seems to mean it, but of course that's not the way things turn out. Ulysses is 14 and experiencing the rush of emotions that every adolescent goes through. It's not a time for keeping secrets. What's inside keeps bubbling up, determined to escape.

Is Ulysses a boy? That's not altogether clear - the story makes room for multiple interpretations around gender and sexuality - and perhaps it shouldn't matter. What he really needs is a safe space in which to explore possibilities and find a comfortable way to live. He finds it in a Saturday church group where older trans women mentor young people who are going through similar struggles. This is one of those rare communities that exists in real life and also in musicals. It's a warm place where he finds non-prescriptive support and also meets a boy his own age (Marquis Rodriguez) with whom he forms a tentative relationship. But managing a double life is always difficult. Ulysses faces aggressive prejudice from the child minder and longs for a way to explain things to his mum.

Although it's billed as a musical, there are only a handful of songs in this film, some of them accompanied by dance numbers. As in other areas of queer cinema, they serve to illustrate both the importance of escapist fantasy and the cognitive dissonance many young queer people struggle with in trying to bridge the gap between the reality they know and the reality that other parts of society try to insist on. They're not the strongest part of the film but they provide some relief from the stress of Ulysses' struggle, which also takes in a short period of homelessness and points out how vulnerable young queer people can be to exploitation.

Despite these often very downbeat themes, the joy of community keeps the film buoyant, and Kain's finely judged performance is a joy to watch. Ulysses may be beginning to assert an adult identity but is still, in many ways, a child, unprepared to take on the weight of everybody else's concerns. His sweetness seems to bleed through into the structure of the story itself, promising to see it through to a better place.

There's a fairy tale character to this tale - the unhappy child wandering in the (urban) forest, encountering glamorous creatures and undegoing, finally, a magical transformation - but for all that it's familiar, it has an energy and charm all its own. It feels fresh and honest, and is one of the best coming out films of recent years.

Reviewed on: 11 Jan 2018
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A teenager explores issues around gender identity and sexuality in a seemingly hostile world, finding support from a church group.


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