Movie review: ‘Yes, God, Yes’ captures the cringe of teen shame, salvation in desire amid religious setting

Natalia Dyer attends the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images/TNS)
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By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service (TNS)

Karen Maine, the co-writer of Gillian Robespierre’s effervescent abortion comedy, “Obvious Child,” mines her own awkward teenage experiences for her directorial debut, “Yes, God, Yes.” Anyone who has experienced the fumblings of budding adolescent desire straining against the rigidity of a religious education will be transported back to those heady days (whether you like it or not), thanks to Maine’s incredible recall for detailed specificity and star Natalia Dyer’s expressive performance.

Dyer stars as Alice, a smart teen just trying to make it through life at her Catholic high school, where sex education is taught by the overbearing Father Murphy (Timothy Simons), who uses kitchen appliances as metaphors for male and female arousal. It’s not exactly the kind of knowledge Alice needs to navigate the AOL chat rooms she frequents after school, where a few accidentally racy chats lead her to start to explore her own sexuality. But after a befuddling and nasty rumor about her spreads around school, Alice seeks salvation, in the form of reputation-scrubbing, at a weekend retreat, Kirkos, where she receives an unexpected lesson in lust.

Maine’s approach to the material is not to gloss over it with wit or sparkle, but to deeply lean into the cringe-core aspect of Alice’s experience. The awkward moments are soundtracked by silence or whispers and drawn out into agonizingly long moments. Alice, sheltered and sweet, is completely clueless when it comes to sex slang, and so much of the film is about highlighting what it feels like to live in this fog of misunderstanding: to fake it and keep up with the cool kids, while also experiencing her own physical urges, repressed by the doctrine and hierarchy of her strict Catholic high school.

The world Maine creates is one of a subtle but undeniable hypocrisy that emanates throughout Kirkos, where leaders and role models say one thing but do another. Part of Alice’s confusion is she’s constantly being gaslit by everyone around her as she tries to make sense of things that don’t make sense, like the rules and social shame that tell her what she feels is wrong, gross or shameful.

Maine’s film captures something indelible about adolescent female desire, without condescending or objectifying, because she understands, subjectively, what that looks and feels like: all the confusion and shame, but yes, also pleasure to be found there. She beautifully depicts something that has been rarely seen on film: the lustful gaze of an adolescent woman (as opposed to the lustful gaze being directed at her). When Alice’s eyes linger on the hairy forearms of the smiley and beautiful Kirkos leader Chris (a pitch-perfect Wolfgang Novogratz), and a slowed-down cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” drops on the soundtrack, it’s a moment so specifically accurate it could cause vivid flashbacks to torrid nights spent stealing glances at cute boys in youth group.

There are times where the film does struggle with pacing, especially in those bone-dry comedic moments. But Maine’s honesty as a filmmaker, and Dyer’s incredible performance, pull us along on Alice’s journey toward making sense of it all, and most importantly, herself. The only place Alice finds any sense, or any answers, is at a local dive bar where she meets a person (Susan Blackwell) who serves as a Sherpa of sorts, at least for a moment, promising her that yes, it does get better, somehow. Sometimes that reassurance is all we need to get through the tough (awkward, confusing) times.

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‘YES, GOD, YES’

3 stars

Cast: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons, Wolfgang Novogratz.

Directed by Karen Maine.

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Rated R for sexual content and some nudity.

In virtual cinemas and select drive-ins on Friday; on digital and VOD platforms on Tuesday, July 28.

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