Yes, God, Yes Karen Maine Natalia Dyer

Yes, God, Yes is a religious sex comedy with bite

Turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia abounds in this debut feature from director Karen Maine.

It’s a weird thing that, I suppose, every generation goes through: everyone assumes that their youth is never going to be looked back on with a mixture of pity and nostalgia. When you’re 14, you could not possibly imagine that whatever cultural moment you’re living will ever be codified into any version of the broad “past” even if you’re surrounded with nothing but totems to previous generations.

Take Grease, for example. When it was released in the 1970s, it was lauded as a throwback to the youth of the dominant generation at the time, who were turned off by the loud rock music and repetitive disco beats of the ’70s youth and hearkened back to the time when music was made for dancing and innocent sockhops and ice-cream sundaes and whatever the fuck. When I was a kid, Grease was re-released into theatres where the people who were young when it came out in 1978 hearkened back to that innocence and pined for their lost youth through something that was already nostalgic for another lost youth from 20 years earlier.

In short, no one escapes the ouroboros of self-satisfied nostalgia — not even those who make deliberately anti-nostalgic art. I was 14 in the year 2000 — right around the time that Yes, God, Yes is set, but if I had had to guess at the time what a movie about the year 2000 would look like and be about, there’s no way that I would’ve described a gentle coming-of-age comedy about discovering the Internet and your own burgeoning sexuality at the same time… even though that’s precisely what I was going through. It doesn’t seem rose-colored or nostalgic enough, though I hesitate to consider things like “blacking out in my friend’s garage while people around me sang ‘Because I Got High’ by Afroman” as viable coming-of-age setpieces. What I’m trying to say is that, though I have no idea how old writer-director Karen Maine is, I would hazard a guess that, like Greta Gerwig or PEN15 creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, she is just about my age and, in a roundabout way, Yes, God, Yes is my Grease.

Alice (Natalia Dyer) is a high school junior attending a conservative Christian high school in which everyone — from teachers to the priest (Timothy Simons) to her friends — spend an insane amount of time worrying about people having sex. Alice has recently discovered the forbidden pleasures of cybersex chat rooms, though her almost complete lack of knowledge of sexual slang and acts makes her contributions rather spartan. It hasn’t stopped a rumour from spreading around school that she “tossed the salad” of a boy at school, an act that she not only vehemently denies but one that she doesn’t even understand. The rumour makes its way across the school and even follows her on an extracurricular retreat, where she discovers not only that her burgeoning desires aren’t going anywhere but that most of the pious Christians that surround her are hypocrites.

There are two forces at play for Alice in Yes God Yes: the uncontrollable urges that she gets that also lead her to realize there’s more to life than what she might be told, and the constant, unknowable feeling that people may not be perfectly honest with her. Yes God Yes captures a very particular aspect of nascent teenagedom, the one where you begin to clue in to things that people are talking about while not having the full set of tools necessary to parse them. It’s a recurring impulse of coming-of-age films to assign a certain amount of precociousness to your lead character, to make them somehow out of step with everyone else, but also one step ahead. Instead, Alice always seems one step behind, aware that there’s something she doesn’t quite grasp, but also aware that they’re lose-lose situations if she tries to figure them out. Though its signifiers have a lot to do with Lady Bird, Alice exists at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum of plucky teenagers.

Yes, God, Yes also has plenty to say about the hypocrisy of organized religions and the absurdity of grown men trying to coerce an ass-eating confession from a young girl based entirely on schoolyard hearsay. The entire film is built around not only Alice’s own sexual awakening but the fact that everyone around her seems to have already awakened sexually and, therefore, has some vested interest in making her feel the full brunt of how wrong it is to feel the feelings they apparently also feel. Taking potshots at the hypocrisy of organized religion is pretty much fish in a barrel these days, but there’s something very vindicating to the way Maine builds this particularly feeble house of cards. Yes, God, Yes is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it does select and tear down its targets with accuracy.

Adapted from a short film of the same name, Yes, God, Yes suffers somewhat from the lightness of its plotting. At just under 80 minutes, it doesn’t leave much space for texture. It doesn’t feel nearly as “lived-in” as other films of its ilk, especially since it spends so much time either in school or away at an antiseptic religious retreat. As interesting as it is to centre a film around a protagonist who’s so unmoored in the world, she doesn’t have anyone to bounce off of in any meaningful way. Simons does the best he can with an underdeveloped priest character, but the character development in general could use a shot in the arm. On one hand, it’s commendable for a film to keep its focus as narrow as this one does; on the other hand, it feels more than a little sparse.

I do wonder what’ll happen to the generations below me, whose awakenings came entirely from the Internet and access to the entirety of knowledge that it provides. There have been many films about the hypocrisy of organized religion and the confusion of sexual awakening. In that sense, Yes God Yes doesn’t manage to fully set itself apart. But I have seen precisely zero movies that have captured the intersection between the loss of “innocence” and the presence of so much of the unknown in a box in the family room, and for that alone, Yes, God, Yes is worth a look. Especially if you’re my exact age. ■

Yes, God, Yes is on VOD Dec. 8. See more details about the film on its IMDB page, and watch the trailer here:

Natalia Dyer stars in Yes, God, Yes by Karen Maine

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