An apparent subcategory has emerged within the brimming coming-of-age oeuvre, as artists depict characters in the chrysalis of adolescence confronting their religious upbringing. Newcomer Karen Maine stands at the veranda of this canon, bearing her directorial debut “Yes, God, Yes” as her ticket for admission.
Set in the early 2000s, “Yes, God, Yes” centers on a timid 16-year-old girl named Alice (Natalia Dyer) whose curiosity about sex conflicts with the prudish values of her Catholic school. A circulating rumor alleges that Alice “tossed” the “salad” of another boy (Parker Wierling), the term euphemizing a “sexual act involving mouth and buttocks.” While the rumor is clearly untrue, Alice is secretly intrigued by sex, filling the blind spots of her school’s fearmongering education by joining raunchy AOL chatrooms. Alice worries her sexual desires will deploy her into a fiery inferno, so she embarks on a school-sponsored retreat called Kirkos. Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) leads the retreat with the help of other students donning chipper smiles and orange sweatshirts like a creepy, Catholic Camp Half-Blood. Naturally, one of the student leaders is the scorching hot varsity footballer Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz). Chris is all dimples and warmth and muscles and manners — even his unruly arm hair excites Alice’s libido. Desire, however, is forbidden at Kirkos.
“Yes, God, Yes” compromises quality for a light, trite tone that overshadows the few feeble sentimental moments. Alice exists in a puritan monolith of crisp polos and knee-length skirts. Her environment conflates various well-worn stereotypes about conservative Catholic students and caricatured religious zealots. She is ostensibly best friends with a buttoned-up, self-righteous girl named Laura (a biting Francesca Reale). The film presents this friendship as the gospel truth, yet offers no evidence how on God’s green earth these diametrically opposed girls became friends or why the hell their fragile friendship has lasted this long.
Maine boasts experience in screenwriting, notably contributing to the celebrated “Obvious Child.” Perhaps the attention to nuance and innovative storytelling she featured in that film were practicing abstinence, since these important, consecrated skills do not put out in “Yes, God, Yes.” With one foot in satire and the other in sincerity, the movie pisses on its purpose and stumbles in an aimless, constipated search for genre.
“Yes, God, Yes” does not atone for the sins of its script. Alice’s primary grievance is that the invisible Scarlet Letter was wrongly assigned to her, instead of the fact that it exists at all. She’s not upset her peers practice slut-shaming; she actually attempts to reproduce it, telling Laura she saw two students having sex in the woods.
For a movie about exploring desire, “Yes, God, Yes” does not want to discover anything new. The film recycles predictable movie tropes and archetypal characters. Ingenue Alice is an innocent, pitiful and meek protagonist at the mercy of her cruel and judgmental peers. Dyer reproduces the same seemingly fixed expression of big-eyed cluelessness; her performance stales quickly.
The Hail Mary of Alice’s development arrives in the last 15 minutes, as a sentient leather jacket named Gina (Susan Blackwell). A lesbian ex machina, Gina helps Alice reject the repression indoctrinated in her education. If the dialogue weren’t so contrived, the scene between Dyer and Blackwell might harbor potential to arrive at the heart.
On the last day of Kirkos, Alice delivers a banal speech about Catholic guilt, repression and the importance of honesty. Lazy writing transforms the film’s protagonist into the filmmaker’s puppet. The scene is like a frayed ribbon attempting to tie Alice’s character arc into a neat bow.
If this film came out in the time it takes place, perhaps “Yes, God, Yes” would bring something fresh to the table. Sexual shame polluted the early 2000s, and while it pervades in the present, 2020 erects a higher bar for sex-positive media. The reliance on flat archetypes dulls any sharp wit the film pretends to provide. While the trailer promises a charming star lead and heartfelt storytelling, “Yes, God, Yes” is a tease, offering audiences no substantive satisfaction.