By Mary Sollosi
July 24, 2020 at 09:49 PM EDT
Advertisement
Everett Collection

About halfway through Yes, God, Yes, one of the group leaders on a Catholic youth retreat hands Natalia Dyer's Alice, a nervous teen desperately ashamed of having recently discovered the joys of masturbation, a s'more. "We pretended each marshmallow was a different mortal sin before burning it," she tells Alice cheerfully. "Yours was lust." Alice looks down and gently squeezes the treat, the decadently charred marshmallow threatening to overflow its graham cracker prison. Go ahead. Take a bite.

Screenwriter Karen Maine (Obvious Child) makes her directorial debut with the sly, sincere film (out now on VOD), which was loosely inspired by some of her own teenage experiences. Set in the early 2000s, Alice's awakening begins with an explicit AIM conversation (her curiosity having already been piqued by Titanic's hand-on-the-window scene). Around the same time, a dirty rumor starts going around about her having performed an act that she's far too innocent to even understand, much less have done. Still, the timing lines up so well that when the chance to go on the youth retreat rolls around, both Alice herself and all her classmates and teachers believe that she could use a good spiritual cleanse. Over four days in the woods, however, she gets something much better.

The subject matter brings to mind another great teen indie, 2004's brilliant Saved!, but Yes, God, Yes doesn't skewer "moral" sex ed with the same satirical bite as that much more heightened take on the subject (a highly satisfying needle drop in the closing moments, however, could be interpreted as a quiet nod to the earlier film). Maine takes careful aim at the same particular brand of hypocrisy with a subtle, naturalistic approach — keeping things very horny but extremely unsexy — and a sharp eye for ironies big and small.

In that sense especially, the film benefits enormously from Maine's female perspective; it's the difference between a discreet s'more of shame and a mutilated apple pie. An inspired device comes in the repeated references to one of Alice's lessons in morality class, wherein Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) compares male sexuality to a microwave and female sexuality to an oven, endlessly deepening Alice's shame at ever having gotten fully preheated as well as reinforcing the "boys can't help themselves" myth that has somehow given spaghetti straps a villainous reputation in schools — religious or not — across the country.

Despite the breathtaking unfairness perpetuated by so many characters under the pretext of faith, the film shows remarkable empathy not only for Dyer's heroine, but also everyone around her, all of whom insist on telling Alice who she is and what she's done and where she's going without giving her a chance to chime in herself — a particular injustice that feels truer every time a new person commits it.

The Stranger Things star brings great humanity to Alice, a serious person with an anxious desire to be a good girl, whatever that means. And just when it seems like she'll drown under the weight of other people's judgments and expectations and lies (or just drown in her kind of heartbreakingly oversized camp sweatshirt), it's a well-earned victory to see her find her own voice — and grant herself permission to maybe rewind that Titanic scene as much as she wants, guilt-free. She's a teen, not a saint. A-

Related stories:

Comments