In high school in the early aughts, I was an ardent evangelical Baptist who happened to attend a Jesuit college prep school. For all of their doctrinal and liturgical differences, both my Catholic and Protestant worlds shared one thing in common: a radically conservative sexual ethic. Sex and bodies were sinful and gross; that is, until you entered into a heteronormative marriage in abstinent piety. Then you flipped the switch and sex became a righteous, sacred act, a thrilling metaphor of God’s unconditional love for the church as the Bride of Christ. In those days of puka shell necklaces and AOL Instant Messenger, I had kissed dating goodbye and was striving to be wild at heart, because love was more than filling the need for S-E-X.
I tell you all of this because the (self)stimulating coming-of-age comedy-drama Yes, God, Yes brought back all of these semi-repressed memories of having grown up within conservative Christian circles where sex in all of its forms was the ultimate taboo. Writer and director Karen Maine has crafted a remarkably faithful and poignant tale of an endearingly innocent Catholic teenager, Alice (Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer), whose religious upbringing has not adequately prepared her for understanding her own sexuality and body. In its portrayal of Alice’s emerging sexual awareness, Yes, God, Yes effectively navigates the awkwardness of sexual maturation within conservative Christianity without either becoming a raunchy satire or a self-satisfied deconstruction of religious institutions. Like Alice, the film is sweetly unassuming, yet contains compelling profundity and insight.
The film opens with a title card from the book of Revelation about the sexually immoral being eternally condemned to the lake of fire, immediately followed by a second title card offering a definition of “salad tossing” and “tossing someone’s salad.” Alice’s journey oscillates between the tension of these two opening texts. On the one hand, she appears to be truly anxious about her eternal destiny, and exhibits a sense of genuine piety in her commitment to Catholic rituals. On the other hand, she is deeply curious as to what tossing someone’s salad entails, and whether or not this would be worth doing. When an innocent AIM chat suddenly turns into cyber sex (the film truly captures the naivety of teens and their parents regarding the early days of iterations of online interactions and the profusion of Internet pornography), Alice discovers her own capacity for self-pleasure, which causes a sense of disequilibration: how can something apparently so wrong feel so good? So when Alice finds herself under the suspicion of her peers and teachers due to a cruel rumor, Alice signs up for a school-sponsored weekend spiritual retreat, eager to find some answers to her internal queries.
Natalia Dyer’s performance is a powerful combination of wide-eyed innocence and a complex interiority. Flashes of embarrassment, inquisitiveness, and yearning all flash across her face in a matter of seconds. The camera often centers on her facial responses to whatever she’s seeing or experiencing; rather than seeing what Alice sees, we simply see Alice seeing. Dyer generates a rich sense of empathy; we care about Alice’s plight, which feels at once commonplace and consequential, even life-changing. We’re not here to make fun of her and her cluelessness because, let’s face it, we’ve all been the clueless ones before; we’re cheering her on. And Alice is no dummy; she’s smart, shrewd, and driven. She knows that she doesn’t know everything about sex (as well as religion), and she desires to overcome this ignorance in an exploratory quest for answers, whether found in a church, a chatroom, or a lesbian bar. She recognizes that the people around her—including her school’s Catholic priest (Timothy Simons)—are all hiding something, putting on an act in public. In this way, Yes, God, Yes is far less about teens trying to get laid and more about a genuine search for the truth in all of its existential, metaphysical, and erotic glory. It’s no accident that the film is structured around scenes of confession, both as the traditional Catholic sacrament and in more informal (yet still spiritually significant) settings—when we are able to cut through religious pretense and get honest about our deepest questions, it’s quite liberating.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8949056/