For those of us who were teenagers in the 1990s and early 2000s, the “walled garden” of America Online was how many of us connected with the world on a then-unprecedented scale. One could surf the World Wide Web using an early browser like Netscape, but the security of a closed platform made this enormous new concept of the internet seem a little more orderly, manageable, and custom-made for the individual. It was also an introduction to how quickly digital anonymity can spiral out of control, where entering an innocuous chatroom can quickly turn into a solicitation for cybersex.
This is the inciting event in Yes, God, Yes, a coming-of-age dramatic comedy from writer-director Karen Maine. The story follows Catholic high school student Alice (Natalia Dyer) on her journey to self-discovery. During an eye-opening exchange on AOL, Alice discovers masturbation (thus the cheeky title) with no prior knowledge of what to do or how. At school, she’s taught that sex is only between a married man and woman for the purposes of procreation, and that anything outside of that is against God’s will, including solo sex. Meanwhile, religious schools are just as susceptible to cliques and popularity contests, and a weekend retreat called Kirkos is all the rage. Alice, wanting to fit in (and get close to the boy she actually likes), decides to join.
The retreat itself projects positivity, but in practice it’s little more than a vehicle for soft yet unrelenting peer pressure to confess feelings that aren’t sins, and to redirect young people’s adolescent confusion and need for role models into enthusiasm for the church. Everything seems clean and holy on the surface, but behind the scenes, raging hormones will not be denied, and the adult supervision is less chaste than it appears.
It would have been easy for Maine to sensationalize the antics on the retreat, and lesser films might focus on pent-up shenanigans or naively insist that sexual release is all these characters need. Yes, God, Yes is smarter, sharper, and funnier because it avoids those traps, remaining focused on what it wants to say, and avoiding clichés that would muddle the message. Alice is not any more enlightened or base than those around her. She’s no more honest or dishonest, no more empathetic or selfish. The only difference is that she carries no shame for her newfound feelings. She is every bit as capable of bad decisions, fudging the truth, and concealing her true intentions as those around her, but she cannot reconcile the positivity of what she experienced with the guilt she is supposed to feel. She forgoes the self-deception of trying to live both ways, and forgives herself when she realizes nobody actually lives up to their outward personality. Dyer’s performance excellently captures the difficult emotional space of knowing that there should be conflict but feeling that there doesn’t have to be.
Maine co-wrote Obvious Child, a film in which the character’s journey never once involves an apology for her decision to have an abortion, and the humor comes from a similar place of honesty. Yes, God, Yes is a comedy about a sexual awakening, but it is not a “sex comedy.” It’s about the unnaturalness of denying the totality of who you are. The most dishonest thing people can do is claim they are not hiding something, whether it’s the priest viewing pornography when he thinks no one is looking, or student leaders on the retreat sneaking into the woods to fool around. Neither of these activities on their own are moral or immoral, but the more they are denied, the more their public-facing persona becomes a deception, and their private life becomes an obsession.
On the first day of the retreat, the students are given a list of words and told to circle the ones they’ve felt. Alice circles “turned-on” (then tries to erase it in horror), and is later confronted about it, despite being told there were “no wrong answers.” Many students likely considered circling that word but didn’t to maintain their facade. Alice’s life is made more difficult because she was honest. This is an unfair trap: Reward self-denial, and punish self-acceptance.
While avoiding spoilers as much as possible, the film ends with a meditation on the true meaning of confession, forgiveness, and honesty. We are used to a film climaxing with a grand statement of sincerity, the misunderstood hero piercing the fog of cynicism to show everyone a better way. When Alice’s moment comes, she doesn’t spill everyone’s secrets to combat rumors that others have spread about her, because that would just create another quagmire, and no one would believe her anyway. Nor does she apologize for things she has done, because that would only give ammunition to those intent on using her to spread lies. Instead, she uses the moment to tell the truth, not facts: The most honest thing we can do is stop pretending that we don’t have anything to hide.
Yes, God, Yes
R, 78 minutes
Streaming (Amazon Prime)