When 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain) is home alone he likes to sneak into his mother’s closet to feel the texture of her pretty dresses and try on her high-heel shoes. It’s a typical queer-boy fantasy in a film about by-the-book queer fantasies and fantasies about queerness. Writer-director Damon Cardasis follows a rather didactic approach to Ulysses’s plight in Saturday Church. First the boy loses his father, “replaced” by his homo- and transphobic aunt (Regina Taylor), who moves in to help his mother (Margot Bingham) raise him and his little brother (Jaylin Fletcher). Then Ulysses loses his home, as it were, running away after an altercation with the aunt, who finds the pair of studded pumps that he bought for himself. Homelessness becomes a claim of kinship, or some kind of necessary queer rite of passage, as Ulysses befriends other queer and trans folk he meets at a pier turning tricks, most of whom have been rejected by their biological families.
When we first witness Ulysses’s cross-dressing, he’s changing in a locker room, revealing his black pantyhose underneath his clothes. It’s a moment that calls to mind Anna Muylaert’s significantly more nuanced and subversive take on the attraction between queer boys and feminine garb in Don’t Call Me Son. Cardasis’s film is actually much closer to an episode of Glee: Right when you think it will only offer up stereotypical scenes of school-yard homophobia, with a group of jocks calling Ulysses a “fairy” and shoving his clothes in a toilet, the bullies break out into song and dance. In this moment of whimsical revenge, a high school locker room is effectively turned into a diva’s stage, with jocks acting like Ulysses’s backup dancers as the boy lips-synchs to a dance track. But while there’s a refreshing feel to this first dance sequence, most of the other musical moments in the film are rife with cheesy lyrics and lazy staging, the nadir of which is a scene at a queer community center called Saturday Church with the queer characters sitting around a table sluggishly mouthing words like “Left homeless, rejected, so lonely.”
It doesn’t help that whenever the film’s characters aren’t singing less-than-inspired songs, they’re trading clichés, like when Ulysses’s mother tells him, “I am trying my best,” to which he responds, “Try harder.” This drives her to overdramatically slap him across the face and immediately cover her mouth, surprised by her own actions. It’s all very hokey, if not campy. The exception is a beautiful little scene toward the end when, one morning, feeling confident from having been kissed by a boy from “church,” Ulysses walks the streets of New York to go to actual church and breaks out into a voguing routine. In this moment, he finally feels empowered by his homeless, sex-working friends to mock the world he lives in and inhabit an imaginary one of his own making.