Karen Maine’s quasi-autobiographical “Yes, God, Yes“ turns the clock back to the early 2000s. This was a time when the internet first became in vogue for activities beyond innocuous research. Maine’s feature film debut, based off her short of the same name, incorporates the early wave of cybersex with a Catholic high school girl’s sexual awakening. The theme of this light-hearted teen comedy is desire versus piety, or in Alice’s (Natalia Dyer) case, the fear that sexual curiosity might kill the Catholic. Despite pulling authentically from her own experience, Maine’s presentation of events relived comes off like a tamer, heteronormative version of Jamie Babbit’s triumphantly rebellious, “But I’m a Cheerleader.”
Dyer’s Alice is a timid girl from the Midwest who always does the right thing under the watchful eyes of God. However, nature is religion’s greatest adversary. This is particularly true when sexual development disrupts one’s faith-based education. Alice wants to concentrate less on coloring within the lines of scripture and more on personal sensations that pique interest. She enters chat rooms to discover what it’s like to converse sexually with another person and finds objects around the house to use for masturbatory pleasure. All this she recognizes as sinful, and yet her peers and educators make her feel as though she’s the only one delving into sensual exploration.
Rampant hypocrisy is a source of critique and humor, though Timothy Simons, as Father Murphy – head instructor and camp counselor – isn’t as against-type hilarious as expected. His sermons seem rehearsed instead of confident, creating a performance more awkward and unsuited than satirically effective. Dyer is fantastic as a meek girl filled with inner revolution, but the rest of her cast tends to exaggerate their piousness or rest on cult stereotyping. There’s even a lesbian biker who owns a bar, underscoring the narrative’s dependence on worn-out tropes to sell radical empowerment.
There’s never an instance of too much provocation; the story lacks the iconic raunch factor of classics like “American Pie” and “Booksmart.” Even the “Lady Bird” Catholic school parallels are diminished by comparison. “Yes, God, Yes” is sincere about going against the dogmatic grain, though it pulls from better films containing double the substance and laughs. Barely under an hour and twenty minutes, Maine’s dramedy feels more like a spark of rebellion than an open flame of resistance.
Slut-shaming and rumors of sexual escapades with a classmate follow Alice to the school’s private social retreat. Held to a different standard of promiscuity than the boy she’s alleged to have “tossed the salad” with, Alice retains her fortitude and never gives in to histrionics or revenge. She’s a class of her own when it comes to dignity, proving that enlightenment means treating others with kindness sans judgment. Using Catholicism’s own teachings against its practitioners, Alice not only climbs back up the rabbit hole, but she’s on the road to liberating those in Wonderland’s clutches. “Yes, God, Yes” has all the ingredients to mount an incursion, but it too often relies on past cinematic archetypes and scenarios to make a real dent of its own.