Is it possible for a teen sex comedy to be vulgar and sweet at the same time?
Can a movie be a thoughtful exploration of hypocrisy in religious organizations but also be focused on a young high school girl’s quest for guilt-free passion?
In the case of “Yes, God, Yes,” the answer is yes and yes.
It opens with Revelations 21:8: “As for the faithless, and the sexually immoral, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Natalia Dyer stars as Alice, a teenager in a private religious high school who is ashamed by her sexual curiosity and, like her classmates, keeps her moments of experimentation a closely guarded secret. We learn through observation that the school teaches that sex before marriage leads to “damnation for all eternity.”
The school’s patch reads “Truth. Faith. Wisdom.” Alice joins her classmates on a Catholic Youth Retreat, in which the faculty’s attempt to tame the sexual urges of the student body has the opposite effect.
Although the timeline isn’t clearly established, we can determine that this is set in 1999, since we see a nun attentively reading a John Grisham paperback, references are made to the popularity of “Forrest Gump,” “Titanic” and Blink 182’s “Enema of the State.” While (barely) a period piece, its contemporary enough to resonate with any age.
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Dyer, best known for playing Nancy Wheeler on “Stranger Things,” is the best reason to see this. Dyer’s wonderfully expressive performance makes Alice awkward, vulnerable and completely endearing. This is a showcase role that will hopefully allow her to breakout as an actress.
The cast is good all around, but the standout is Timothy Simons. He’s excellent playing Father Murphy, an adult leader and guiding light for the school who can come across as simultaneously warm and intense. Everyone in the cast appears to be the appropriate high school age (save Dyer, 25), which isn’t a given for these movies.
“Yes, God, Yes” is written and directed by Karen Maine, who wrote the story upon which the great 2014 Jenny Slate vehicle, “Obvious Child,” is based. At last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, the film earned the Special Jury Award Winner and also the Audience Award winner at last year’s Sante Fe Independent Film Festival.
There are moments here that really stung, as they made me recall questionable moments from my own experience in private Christian schools. At one point, a class is instructed to listen to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” – the teacher stresses, “pretend the eyes in the song are Jesus’ eyes.”
The awkward infusion of worldly pop culture with Christianity typically results in the appropriation of secular music (and other art forms) for Christian consumption. The movie confronts this and other wonky aspects of zeitgeist entertainment funneled into a religious organization.
Unlike the smarmy, heavy-handed “Saved!,” this captures the forced exchanges one finds in a sealed off environment where honesty and real problems aren’t acceptable.
“Yes, God, Yes” is minor but unpredictable, refreshingly honest and very funny. It’s 78-minutes long, with a tight edit that seems to maximize the story points and narrative build without overstaying its welcome.
It’s not an attack on organized religion or religious schools but a commentary on how two-faced behavior isn’t a factor only common to students. It also reminds us that everyone, no matter how seemingly perfect, carries a secret and needs to be honest about who they are and what they struggle with.