It’s an idea that’s probably a tough sell to anyone who never came of age in the cloistered world of Catholic high schools: that the coolest event imaginable to upperclassmen was a weekend-long retreat in which the only priority was to get closer to God. Every minute of it was scheduled to maximize devotion and confession, every moment was overseen by a stern teacher or clergyperson, the idea of even sneaking in a cell phone (or, gasp, alcohol or drugs) was so foreign as to not even be considered, and the most in-demand accessory was a neon-covered “teen Bible” that mistook Comic Sans as a hip font choice. Crying was all but required, sharing horribly embarrassing secrets was the primary currency, and when someone would ask if 48 hours at a faux campsite about 30 minutes from campus had changed your life, there was only one acceptable answer: “yes, God, yes!”
First-time filmmaker Karen Maine (who previously co-wrote the Sundance hit “Obvious Child”) undoubtedly experienced just such a teenage rite of passage, the conceit framing her “Yes, God, Yes” with humor broad enough to appeal to even the most secular of viewers, and a specificity so rich that this former Catholic schoolgirl frequently gasped in recognition. No, in retrospect, a weekend retreat held in the fall of my senior year was not the most important thing to happen to me, but it sure as hell felt that way at the time, and it’s with that kind of respect and good humor that Maine translates some of her own youth into her feature directorial debut.
Featuring “Stranger Things” star Natalia Dyer as Maine surrogate Alice, the actress shines in a complex, often very funny role. Alice is a good-hearted kid, but she’s possessed with a natural curiosity (read: okay, she’s a horny teenager) that doesn’t play at her strict Catholic high school. A double whammy of discovery upends Alice’s quiet life, as she becomes the subject of an untrue rumor regarding a sex act with a fellow student and her innocent AOL chats lead her into a hotbed of porn-tastic internet sin. Alice is so sheltered that the idea of turning to the worldwide web (rendered here in perfect imitation of its early-aughts dial-up style) to find out just what she’s been accused of doing to sketchy Wade (Parker Wierling) seems like a sensible enough bet, and she’s soon embroiled in all sorts of dirty sex chat with total strangers.
And she kind of likes it. As Alice takes halting steps toward the wide world of self-pleasure (knowing full well the price is eternal damnation, etc.), the slow simmer of her “Easy A”-like shunning begins to weigh more heavily on her soul. The answer: a four-day retreat in which she’ll get closer to God, back into the good graces of her social circle, and only occasionally try to get herself off with her vibrating Nokia cell phone. It seems like the answer to all her prayers (and makes for a damn good idea for an indie film on a budget, limited locations and all that).
While Maine’s witty script is filled with more than enough sequences primed to get laughs out of any audience (with Dyer turning in a charming performance that never goes too broad), the real winners will likely be fellow Catholic school survivors, who will recognize many of the great truths in “Yes, God, Yes.” From amusing bits like a straight-faced Timothy Simons asking his young flock to imagine that Peter Gabriel was singing about Jesus in “In Your Eyes” to a plucky counselor (Alisha Boe) who offers Alice a sin s’more (they imagined each marshmallow was being fired up for various transgressions!) as a peace offering, the funniest parts are the ones that feel all too real.
Steadily, Alice begins to wake up to the real sins around her, namely that even the most seemingly holy of friends and leaders are guilty of deep hypocrisy. Keeping the meat of the movie to a four-day period allows Maine to use her lo-fi aesthetic to believable advantage, while also not pushing for too-broad evolutions in her characters. Change comes slowly, but as Alice begins to learn the most important lesson of any coming of age film — that there’s nothing wrong with her — “Yes, God, Yes” moves forward in endearing, funny fashion.
Still, it doesn’t quite stick the landing, shoving a few big bumps into an otherwise well-conceived screenplay. Alice’s revelations mostly play out in smart fashion, but a seeming rush to wrap things up push her (and Maine) into awkward corners. During a messy last act, Alice doesn’t just abandon the retreat, but uses her temporary flight of freedom to find a local bar, where she fearlessly orders (and chugs!) a wine cooler. Sure, she’s growing up, but it’s an out of character moment that appears conceived to simply move the plot along.
Maine makes up for those missteps with a winning conclusion that doesn’t go for quick wrap-ups or easy answers, only hinting at a new world to come for Alice, one that extends far beyond silly retreats and slow dial-up connections. If that’s also a hint of more to come for Maine, that’s worth a hearty exhalation, too.
A Vertical Entertainment release, “Yes, God, Yes” will be available via virtual cinemas and at select drive-ins on Friday, July 24 with a VOD release to follow on Tuesday, July 28.