Karen Maine’s feature debut is a beguiling coming-of-age tale centered on an innocent Midwestern Catholic schoolgirl whose faith wavers in the face of her burgeoning sexuality. Alice (Natalia Dyer) lives in a strict world governed by despotic priests and nuns. Eternal damnation is always just around the corner, whether it be for wearing a skirt two inches above the knee or having sex before marriage. After school, she retreats to the inner sanctum of her basement and logs onto the dial-up AOL internet that seems like some ancient relic in comparison to today’s technology. An innocent word scramble game in an AOL chat room turns into a guy IMing her about her A/S/L and sending dirty pictures. Alice’s initial shock slowly metamorphoses into titillation and then outright lust. While she deals with these latest unlocked desires, tensions at school worsen when rumours swirl that she “tossed the salad” with her crush Wade, who has a girlfriend.
At the heart of Yes, God, Yes is Natalia Dyer’s exceptional performance in the lead role. Dyer charts her cauldron of conflicting emotions as she falls down the erotic rabbit hole through her incredibly animated, Keane-esque eyes. They express a kaleidoscope of emotions from confusion, elation, discovery and sadness, and anchor the audience to her journey. Director Karen Maine frequently uses close ups and POV shots to lock viewers into Alice’s internal conflict between her puritanical upbringing and newfound sexual desire.
The majority of the film takes place at a religious retreat led by a repressed priest, snooty pregnant teacher, and overeager youth pastor-types, where Alice and her peers can learn how to be closer to God. The supporting teen actors nail the sickly sweetness of such religious group members. Maine uses these characters to reveal the kind of hypocrisy that runs rampant within the faith when Alice discovers they are not as devout as they seem. The evils of sex do not seem to apply to them, and they appear to struggle with the same yearnings as she does. Maine does not shy away from poking fun at Catholicism (one particularly hilarious moment has a counsellor singing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” about Jesus), but she points out the absurdity of the faith’s ideologies without being too mean-spirited or bitter.
Maine is effortlessly adept at crafting humorously authentic moments throughout, from Alice humping a broom handle, fantasising about a man’s muscular, hairy arms to Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” or referencing the infamous car scene in Titanic as her childhood sexual awakening. The witty script (immediately recognised in the double entendre title) culminates in a sweet sequence where Alice finds herself at a gay bar with a brassy but empathetic lesbian who encourages her to expand her horizons and attend college on one of the coasts. The genuine performances steer clear of any cheesiness that could be found in such an exchange.
Yes, God, Yes is one of those films that shines because of the author’s particular autobiographical influence. Maine beautifully expresses her own specific, individual experience with an unflinching sincerity and charming sense of humour to capture a particular era, way of life, and significant time in a young woman’s coming-of-age. Maine has given recovering Catholics a film they can deeply relate to and champion. But most importantly, she presents self-pleasure as the gateway to Alice’s awakening, not heterosexual sex with a man—unfortunately a liberating concept in cinema today. Yes, God, Yes is a thoroughly cathartic and unabashedly buoyant film that renews the viewer with a stronger sense of the importance of self-love, an understanding of sexuality’s beauty, and the rejection of any ridiculous fears and limitations based on religion.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and also appears in Fandor, Reverse Shot, Crooked Marquee, and IndieWire. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss. Order her book Springsteen as Soundtrack here.