SXSW Review: Yes, God, Yes


Sitting in her parent’s basement, 15-year-old Alice (Natalia Dyer) is about to get more than she bargained for playing movie title word scramble in an AOL chat room. Kids, AOL stands for America Online and, as their name suggests, they were the first company to bring widespread internet access to the American masses via ancient tech in the 90s. Now, chat rooms, well, they were a more mundane, boring-enhanced version of live video chat that you can get now. People typed a bunch of absurdly predictable sex talk at each other and used their imaginations to achieve gratification. Imaginations are these things we used to have before cell phones took over our hands and minds during our free time. Back to Alice in her basement. She’s munching cheese puffs. She’s playing the game. Suddenly, an email arrives to the antiquated AOL soundbite YOU’VE GOT MAIL. It’s one of the other gamers, and they’ve sent her “saucy” pictures. Alice is a bit out of her depth here, but curious.

Thus, begins first-time feature director Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes, a tale of a young woman coming of age and discovering her sexuality under the prohibitive mantle of Christian schooling. The film’s measured pace hits beats built of the awkwardness of the many moments of a sheltered teenager discovering sex and their own body for the very first time. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in the 20 years since a boy fornicated with a pie in his parents’ kitchen in American Pie. Maine intentionally went serious in favor of raunchy, creating a thoughtful, realistic recreation of her own story, featuring what she called 80% accurate details. The result is a positive, female-forward presentation of human sexual awakening that laughs at hypocrisy and tells you it’s OK, nobody knows what they’re doing: everyone else is just figuring out their own shit too.

Yes, God, Yes
Director: Karen Maine
Rated: NR
Release Date: March 8, 2019 (SXSW)

On the one hand, Yes, God, Yes is very much like Greta Girwig’s Ladybird from two years back, considering the setting, on the other hand, they’re nothing alike. Here, Alice is subdued, shy, almost borderline closeted, having no idea what the other students are talking about when she’s accused of tossing a boy’s salad. Note too, that the story is told entirely through her school, time there, and through her contact with a select group of church clergy/educators and students. Mom and dad exist, they’re even called out by name once, but you never meet them, never know them. They’re insignificant, a non-factor in her development. Alice’s world revolves around the church, delivered through school and her day to day life, and what she’s exposed to through conversation with her best friend Laura (Francesca Reale), gossip, and a 56K modem. It’s limited, to say the least. She follows the rules, is favored at school for being obedient to said rules, and keeps her eyes and her head down. She exists. Does she have her own opinions outside of being romantically entangled with her VHS copy of Titanic? It’s hard to say.

Then that damned, literally damned, like a digital serpent sent by the devil to tempt her, email arrives and throws her world upside down. Well, the pictures, followed by the request for cyber-sex, happen to coincide with some nasty rumors involving her and a young man from school. It’s pure coincidence that her peers force her into a sexual world from a virginal one at the same time she begins to explore that journey on her own. The scene of her engaging in confused cyber-sex, not knowing where to put which words where, is a spot-on recreation of reality via the mid-nineties and the first widely available smut of all kinds to minors.

Her head is an empty vessel when it comes to sex and Alice literally begins to explore her body under her pants at the direction of the pictures that were emailed to her. Oh, I put my hand there to touch myself? I had no idea! Thank you email! You’re welcome! Hisses email back.

At school, things go from bad to worse as the rumor mill builds steam. Alice loses her friend, her standing with her clergy, and some of her inhibitions. She’s succumbing to temptation. We don’t see her pluck the apple, but we see her start to nibble at it. She’s never noticed how hairy boys’ forearms are before, but now she does, and she can’t help but lust to run her fingers through that hair. 

Seeking acceptance / validation / answers, Alice attends an overnight outing with some of her fellow students. There, Alice is exposed to the hypocrisy of her peers and her leaders. The very people shunning her, or chastising her or themselves engaging in the activities they’ve warned her will lead to damnation. Alice sees one poster-girl giving a blowjob. She sees her priest, Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) pleasuring himself in his office while watching porn on his compute. While Alice might not know about sex, or have many opinions, her ability to recognize bullshit is quite adept. Suddenly, after seemingly everyone in her world is spurning her, Alice up and leaves the retreat, walking away from a campfire singalong and disappearing into the night.

Surely Alice is looking to get laid. Instead, she finds a bar, goes inside and orders a drink. There, she meets the bar’s proprietor who takes an interest in this young charge. The woman spouts half-cocked philosophical advice and Alice, empty vessel yearning, soaks it up. People are hypocritesNobody knows what they’re doingThey’re all just trying to figure out their own shit. Make sure you go to college on the west or east coastShe offers to take Alice back to the retreat and does so.

Now, young sponge Alice has opinions, surely not her own, but in the way that youth do, she quickly seizes a moment when gathered with her congregation to stand before them and admit her truths. It’s an unsuccessful bid, despite the moment, to have a motivating, empowering speech of discovery and assertion. Alice’s moment of triumph feels flat, and is possible the least authentic-feeling in the film. We know she’s just spouting what the only non-religious adult in the film has told her.

But Alice knows that everybody jerks off, and that’s what matters. Later, home at last, she puts on Titanic in her faithful VCR and puts her hand down her pants. Yes, god, yes!

This is me attempting to have some fun with the overtures of the film that take direct aim at the Catholic church, the Catholic institution, and the layers of guilt that its disciples embroil everyone else in. As noted, Yes, God, Yes is an earnest and serious attempt to portray a woman’s coming of age. Maine wants to provide a healthy portrayal of discovering one’s sexuality and an acknowledgment that doing so is OK. You’re not alone, and if someone tells you that you are, they’re full of shit. If she’s going to burn in hell for having sex with herself, so is everyone else.

Mostly, it’s a successful presentation of an alternative view of reality than that presented by Catholicism. It’s nostalgia driven, and many of its jokes and much of its humor are derived from jabs at nineties technology and nineties life, simplistic as it was. It’s in vogue right now. As if to prove the point, earlier that same day, I’d seen Captain Marvel, the $150 million plus blockbuster aims its jokes in the same direction. It was surreal to see the mega-pic and the Indie flick follow the same blueprint for laughter, but apparently that’s what we in society find most recognizable as humor born from experience or obsolescence.

There’s much to be said of Dyer’s performance. Her commitment to the role. Her absorption of it. Her embodiment of this much younger girl. Much of her emotional range is never depicted by actions or words, it’s created through micro-muscle movements in her face and posture. Yes, the directing helps, but she’s so meek that the film’s plot flows smoothly through her presentation and the only time I found myself questioning anything was the aforementioned moment when she opted to stand up and put things in their place. The intent was clear, the result less so. The bottom line? It’s OK to touch yourself, so go ahead.