The feature directorial debut of Karen Maine (co-writer of “Obvious Child”), the charming coming-of-age comedy “Yes, God, Yes” stars Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”) as a Catholic high school girl struggling to find a balance between her beliefs and her burgeoning sexuality.
Dyer plays 16-year-old Alice, a mostly mild-mannered teen whose raging hormones seem to be in direct conflict with her close relationship to Jesus. At least if she believes what the instructors constantly tell her. Her teachers at school preach that these natural human urges are something she must suppress and feel ashamed of; that eternal damnation awaits anyone who gives into them.
But of course, repression is bound to make things bubble to the surface in unanticipated ways. And as Alice tries to navigate her conflicting desires, things come to a head at the youth retreat where most of the story’s action takes place.
“Yes, God, Yes” is semi-autobiographical, a fact that’s clear through the sharply-observed details Maine (who also wrote the script) builds naturally into the narrative. The story is set in the early-aughts, during the days of AOL chat rooms (let me tell you, the sounds of a dial-up modem are still deeply triggering) and when the film “Titanic” served as many a young girl’s — and boy’s — sexual awakening.
These period details feel authentic, serving as an effective background for Alice’s tentative steps toward womanhood. And Maine thankfully avoids the temptation to overdo the retro references for an easy laugh.
A light-hearted and charming comedy, “Yes, God, Yes” shows the ways devout religious beliefs can make an already difficult and confusing period in any teen’s life all the more fraught. And its occasionally naïve protagonist learns that those around her don’t always practice what they preach.
At school, Alice is facing a wave of salacious gossip circulating amongst her peers about her alleged hookup with an already partnered male classmate. The derision she faces leads to Alice’s dawning realization of how much hypocrisy fuels this particular form of Christianity — in which beliefs seem to be less about loving your fellow man than finding ways to stand in judgement of others, and impose impossible standards on people just trying to live their lives.
But Maine’s film is never smug about pointing out the hypocrisies of its characters. It’s warm and wise, dirty but never explicit, and handles the topic of female sexuality with honesty and frankness.
Dyer is such an immensely appealing lead that we’re put squarely in Alice’s corner, and we root for her even when she acts in impulsive or selfish ways. Maine’s script understands of how raging hormones can make someone act in incredibly stupid ways. And we’ve all been there.
The film is a showcase for the actress’s comedic abilities, and she sells Alice’s confusion and awkwardness, as well as her deep-rooted guilt. She’s able to wring laughs from a furtive look or a furrowed brow, and Maine knows that all she has to do is train her camera squarely on Dyer’s expressive face.
Expanded from Maine’s short film of the same name, the film does have some of the narrative slightness that sometimes accompanies such feature adaptations. Though that may simply be a sign that I was eager to spend more time in the world Maine created. She makes “Yes, God, Yes” a sharp, clear-eyed, and often hilarious gaze into the endlessly embarrassing experience of being a horny teenager. And also one that’s blessedly free of judgment.
“Yes, God, Yes”
(R), Directed by Karen Maine
Now playing virtually at the Little Theatre
Adam Lubitow is a freelance film critic for CITY. Feedback on this story can be directed to CITY's arts & entertainment editor, Rebecca Rafferty, at email@example.com.