‘YES, God, Yes’ is the directorial debut of Karen Maine and it satirizes her Catholic school upbringing. Set in 2000, it’s seen from the eyes of Alice (Natalia Dyer, “Stranger Things”), a high school student in a Midwestern Catholic school for boys and girls.
In class, their teacher, Father Murphy (Timothy Simmons of the TV series “Veep”), stresses that any sex act outside of marriage is sinful, even masturbation, and indulging in such acts not aimed towards the propagation of the human race will be punished by God. Only abstinence is acceptable.
Alice is struggling with her own repressed feelings of burgeoning sexual awakening and anyone who’s reared with a strict Catholic upbringing will definitely be able to relate with her. The film’s main narrative happens when the students take a four-day retreat which is aimed to make them feel closer to God.
This rite of passage should be familiar to all those who went to Catholic schools and some of its situations must be all too real for those who’d recognize experiencing them. Supervised by Father Murphy and senior students who have taken the retreat before, they are supposed to go to confession and be pious all throughout. They’re also ordered to submit their watches and cellphones to make sure they will devote all their time and undivided attention to God.
Before the retreat, Alice became the victim of a rumor that she “tossed the salad” of their classmate Wade during a weekend party. She denies this, adding she doesn’t even know what the phrase means. But their teacher punishes her by preventing her to serve during mass and the priest tells her to pray so many Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
During the retreat, she is assigned to be under Nina (Alisha Boe), who has taken the retreat before and testifies glowingly as to how it totally changed her life. Their retreat leader is Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), a tall, hunky senior with hairy arms and looks like a real heartthrob. Alice quickly develops a big crush on him and later on steals a kiss from him.
She did not surrender her cellphone and that night, alone in her room, she discovers that its vibrations can give pleasure to herself, but she stops when she sees a crucifix hanging on the wall. Nina discovers that she’s hiding her cellphone and Father Murphy penalizes her by assigning her to be a cleaner in the retreat house.
While doing her cleaning duties, she chances upon Nina giving oral sex to her boyfriend, another senior retreatant. And later on, she sees Father Murphy himself watching porn on the desktop computer in his office while giving pleasure to himself. Talk about not practicing what you preach.
Disgusted, Alice walks out of the retreat house that night and walks to town where she goes to a bar and orders a wine cooler. Without her knowing it, the place where she saunters in is a lesbian bar and a friendly butch lady, Gina (Susan Blackwell), quickly recognizes her, because of the sweat shirt she’s wearing, that she is a student who strayed from the retreat house.
Gina gives her some advice, explains to her what tossing the salad means. Her unexpected but understanding mentor tells her that the fear of eternal damnation can really give anyone enormous guilt feelings. Gina then gives her a ride back to the retreat house in her motorcycle.
On their last meeting before going home, Fr. Murphy asks all the retreatants to share what they gained from the weekend. Alice goes in front and tells her colleagues that all of them are hiding some kind of sin, so they should just treat each other with respect and not be judgmental, as Jesus himself reminds us in the Bible.
In her next confession, she tells Fr. Murphy that she saw someone watching a video of a couple having sex, without telling the priest that it’s actually him. Fr. Murphy punishes her with more prayers to recite, but instead of complying, Alice goes home and watches her favorite scene in “Titanic” where Jack and Rose are having sex inside a car, and then her hand is shown slowly sliding down inside her pants to pleasure herself.
Natalia is effectively charming in an often hilarious character who is good-hearted but naturally curious about sex. She cannot ask her parents about it so tries to learn more about sex by doing dirty talk with strangers on the internet, even if it starts to weigh heavily on her conscience.
The film is obviously done on a small budget, with limited locations, but the script is witty enough to make you laugh for recognizing man’s foibles, specially the sanctimonious, hypocritical ones. Alice subsequently realizes the reality that there are no easy answers to her conflicted feelings, that even friends and leaders, who extol chastity and purity, seemingly unsullied and holy with the rigidity of dogma, are actually guilty of hypocrisy and indulging in carnal pleasures.
This makes “Yes, God, Yes” a radical female-centered coming of age film and not the usual raunchy teen sex comedy like “American Pie” or “Good Boys”. The most important lesson Alice learns as she is growing up is that there’s really nothing wrong with her. We are all mere humans with raging hormones and we are all sinners who cower but do not necessarily comply to the church’s fear-based approach of “God is always watching you”. This turns the push and pull struggle of most teens about what religion dictates and what their bodies are telling them, about sin and sexuality, into something personal and very relatable.