Cherry blossoms represent overwhelming beauty, the fleeting nature of life, and the feminine yet powerful.
In “Saturday Church,” cherry blossoms help tell the story of a young African-American’s budding journey of discovering their sexuality and gender identity.
The plot of “Saturday Church” helps illustrate the symbolism of these beautiful flowers, which comes mainly from Asian cultures and how cherry trees bloom and then fall off within a short time.
This film is the latest installment of Pride at FilmScene, coming Monday, May 20, with a 6 p.m. screening at FilmScene, 118 E. College St., Iowa City.
Ulysses (Luka Kain) begins the film grieving the death of their military father, with a mother who works extra shifts to make ends meet. With a little brother, Ulysses is unwillingly thrust into the role of “man of the house,” and is expected to act as a parental figure to young Abe.
Meanwhile, at school Ulysses is bullied. They find respite in their imagination, retreating into music and fantasy.
The isolation Ulysses feels is artfully portrayed in the film direction (Damon Cardasis) and creative use of sound. The audience hears the jeers of the locker room bullies in the distance, with the music of Ulysses’ headphones in the forefront. This creates a sensation that the real world is far away, and reality is slightly blurred.
“Life is hard enough already,” Ulysses’ family members scold him when he wears women’s clothing and shoes.
This tough love is the wrong approach, and Ulysses becomes further isolated from their family. They start staying out late, hanging around the pier in New York City to meet other LGBTQ youth who introduce them to Saturday Church.
Saturday Church is a safe place for a hot meal — and a chance to dance and live without fear of judgment. Ulysses steps into their true self and begins voguing — a popular style of dance in the community (thanks, Madonna).
The best scene in the film for me was watching Ulysses sheepishly practice voguing while they walk down the street, a smile of pure joy transforming their face instantly with each step. Saturday Church gives Ulysses confidence, but after spiked heels trigger a family fight, things take a turn for the worse.
“Saturday Church” is a relatively short film, clocking in at 82 minutes. A lot of details and drama are condensed for time. While Ulysses’ story is shared in an emotionally sensitive and authentic manner, the speed of the plot is a bit unrealistic: a spiral into homelessness and prostitution, then recovery, in 1.5 days of movie time.
This is understandable — and forgivable — when you’re trying to pack in musical fantasy montages at every given opportunity.
The film’s low budget shows. For example, some of the events seem heightened for dramatic effect. But “Saturday Church” is so passionate in its portrayal of a transgender teen finding their place and coming out. The casting is excellent, and the songs and dancing are entertaining while conveying the sadness the characters are experiencing.
Fun fact: some of the actors were actual participants in New York City’s Saturday Church programs.
By the end, I was cheering for Ulysses and felt like a proud mother watching her child finally blossom and shed their fear, to step into their genuine identity.