Being a teenager in the early 2000s was its own brand of confusion. Right at the beginning of the digital age, we were only just starting to have discussions about privacy and online identity. Chatrooms, GeoCities sites, and AOL Instant Messenger exposed us to new ideas and questions, with very few real-world sources for answers. For kids who grew up around church, the addition of faith-based morality to the equation made things even harder. How much of what we were being exposed to was sinful? How much of our curiosity was natural? And why were we supposed to trust adults with no understanding of our experiences as moral authorities?
Karen Maine’s semi-autobiographical film Yes, God, Yes, available to rent online this weekend, is a wildly funny, piercingly accurate exploration of this hyper-specific coming-of-age experience. Maine depicts online-fueled sexual awakening at the turn of the 21st century, and the virtuous homogeneity of youth group culture, in a way that combines the earnestness and specificity of Lady Bird with the absurdity and liberation of But I’m a Cheerleader.
Alice (Natalia Dyer), is a sophomore at a catholic high school in Iowa. Like most teenagers, she’s coming to terms with her burgeoning sexuality, a journey that isn’t helped by the strict sexual education she receives at school. Alice and her classmates’ lessons from Father Luke (Timothy Simons) come complete with bizarre metaphors (boys get turned on immediately like a microwave, girls need time to heat up like an oven) and hellfire warnings about the evils of premarital sex.
When Alice ends up turned on by an unexpected chat room encounter, she feels ashamed. After some classmates start a rumor about her having sex with a boy at a party, she feels ostracized. Alice decides a school-organized retreat weekend is the opportunity she needs to clear her name, fix her social standing, and get right with God (or at least God’s earthly representatives). The retreat, however, presents her with even more temptation, and brings Alice face-to-face with the hypocrisy of what she’s been taught.
Maine’s script contains the kind of specifics that can only come from someone who’s lived through what she’s writing about. Anyone who’s been to a youth retreat – Catholic or otherwise – can immediately recognize the hallmarks. There’s a weird use of a pop song as worship music (in this case, an achingly awkward meditation on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”), sob-story testimonials, and over-enthusiastic heartthrobs leading the discussion groups.
The retreat portion, which makes up most of the film, is what seems to borrow from Jamie Babbitt’s But I’m a Cheerleader, complete with a third-act escape to a lesbian bar that empowers Alice to shake off the chains of shame (Alice isn’t gay, but the effect of the experience is similar). However, the film is never over-the-top, and always authentic. For her part, Dyer does an admirable job conveying Alice’s naivete, hormonal urges and spiritual confusion. She isn’t rebelling against a bunch of puritan harpies; she’s just a young woman trying to discover what she wants, in a setting where the people in charge claim to have already figured that part out for her.
Yes, God, Yes feels like a personal story in the way it both lovingly addresses and skewers the culture it’s taking on. The audience who will appreciate it the most may be fairly tight, but its themes are universally identifiable. Maine’s film is an occasionally uncomfortable but ultimately empowering ride, and a fantastically funny nostalgia trip to boot.
“Yes, God, Yes” is out today on demand.