Premise: After an innocent AOL chat turns racy, a Catholic teenager in the early 00s discovers masturbating and struggles to suppress her new urges in the face of eternal damnation.
Think back to your early high school days and how sex and sexuality felt ever-present in daily life. Then, if you weren’t already, imagine those same feelings in the setting of a Catholic school, where you’re taught to mostly repress or ignore those feelings. Sex outside of marriage is a sin. So is masturbation. What do you do when your body and society are telling you one thing and the church is telling you another? Oh, and if you go against what they’re teaching, you’ll spend the afterlife in eternal damnation.
This provides the narrative backdrop for Yes, God, Yes, the debut feature for writer and director Karen Maine. Alice (Natalia Dyer) begins the film already questioning how much of her urges she should ignore, though she still desperately wants to remain in God’s good graces. This compels her to enroll in a four-day school retreat called Kirros that fills most of the film’s runtime, where she not only wants to be seen as part of the in-crowd but hopes to get some answers about what her body is going through. Alice is so inexperienced in the world of sex that, when she stumbles into a chat with a stranger on AOL (the film takes place in the early 2000’s), she largely doesn’t know what to do and apes whatever the sender says (Dyer’s shocked reaction at each increasingly lewd message is a comedic highlight). One running joke involves a particular sex act that Alice is rumored to have done, in which she spends most of the film trying to figure out what exactly it means.
The retreat provides some nice character beats and development for Alice and the priest, Father Murphy (Timothy Simons), plus a way to explore the conflicting messages of the church. In another film Father Murphy would be classified as the film’s antagonist, but Maine wisely writes him simply as a misguided character who cares more about preaching than listening. This is one of those films where you find yourself wishing you could reach out to the kids and shout at them, “the adults don’t know what they’re talking about!”
Many details of the retreat may wring as hollow narrative contrivances to the uninitiated, but as someone who went to a Catholic school and attended one of the retreats (we called it Kairos; I’m not sure why Maine decided to change the name), I couldn’t help but recognize all the little things Maine gets right. I’m not just talking about the period-specific details like the Nokia phones or the fashion choices, but the atmosphere of the retreat, where every student is put on display, almost competing for who can bare their soul the most. My personal favorite was the lyrics to the music being passed out during one of the leader’s “talks” (I especially remember leadership very expressly referring to them as talks, not speeches). The attention to detail by Maine clearly comes from someone who has lived through a similar experience, rather than someone who simply did some distant research.
Natalia Dyer, best known as Nancy Wheeler on Stranger Things, is fantastic in her first major role. Yes, God, Yes was conceived as a short film by Maine, and Dyer played the same role, so the expanded format really gives her a chance to explore the character’s inner workings. Alice is such a reserved person, but Dyer’s animated facial expressions really give an insight to all the conflict, doubt, confusion and, yes, horniness behind her eyes. There’s a sweet moment late in the film where Alice escapes the retreat and converses with a former Catholic. The scene is not only well-written and performed, but shows Alice that she doesn’t have to live in constant fear of every minute decision or urge she faces.
The film is held back though whenever it falls into conventional plot devices, like when Alice is forced to make a Big Speech that underlines the themes of the film near the conclusion. The cringe comedy works well in its favor, but I was left wishing it went even further. Maine has built a premise that lends itself well to satire, while still getting at the heart of the issue. Yes, God, Yes is not an outright teen sex comedy; it’s much more nuanced because its ultimate goal is more than just seeing its protagonist get laid. At a lean 78 minutes, the film just wants Alice to gain a better understanding of herself and her sexuality. Funny but critical, biting but not mean-spirited, soft-spoken but confident, Yes, God, Yes is a promising work for all involved.
FINAL TAKE: The entire cast here is great, but Donna Lynne Champlin (one of many breakouts from the criminally underappreciated Crazy Ex Girlfriend) is almost wasted here as an overbearing administrator.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.