There are a number of choice music cues in “Yes, God, Yes” to set the late ‘90s milieu for Karen Maine’s sharp comedy, with the use of a slow jam version of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and Collective Soul’s eternally overcompensating “Shine” standing out, as does the soundtrack as part of the film as a whole when the writer/director is keen to underplay everything else. Based loosely on her own experience as a Catholic school girl, the film’s apparent modesty is a reflection of Alice, the young woman at its center who is having trouble squaring her faith with her carnal urges, especially at a time when “Titanic” recently exposed her to the joy of sex and the newfound ability to chat with strangers online over IM introduces her to all kinds of experiences outside her own.
However, “Yes, God, Yes” is a deceptively simple delight, the kind of fine gem that you just know was fretted over for years before getting to the screen as it triangulates a perfect mix of subversive sex comedy, ‘90s nostalgia and provocative ideas about the value of religion and how it can be weaponized, all things you sense Maine has thought a lot about yet blends into a story that seems effortless. That same quality is exuded by her star Natalia Dyer, who brings a wide-eyed innocence to Alice while you just know her mind is constantly churning. It’s sent into overdrive when rumors swirl that she’s given a classmate “a tossed salad,” which she desperately implores her friends to explain to her to no avail. While everyone around school gets ideas about her based on lies, she actually does start having impure thoughts when a stray spam e-mail with an explicit picture inside sends her mind racing and as both situations grow more intense, she ends up heading out on a weekend retreat with fellow teens from her congregation where surely something’s gotta give.
Even if you didn’t suspect every minute detail of Alice’s experience weren’t completely true to Maine’s own coming-of-age – before a screening at SXSW, the writer/director playfully said it was around 80% which is inevitably confirmed by such precise touches as chili being served inside a Fritos bag at the retreat – the emotional details are dead on, as Alice bears witness to the contradictions and outright hypocrisy of those around her in abiding God’s will and while the confusion may be temporarily painful, the need to form her own opinion will prove invaluable later. What Maine gets at is both brilliant and bittersweet in reappropriating the notion of a loss of innocence from something physical to psychological as Alice can no longer take others at their word but finds faith in herself, and the filmmaker’s own voice is so assured, it’s hard to believe it’s her feature debut. Still, “Yes, God, Yes” captures the uncertainty of those post-pubescent years in all their excruciating, cringe-inducing glory so well it deserves an amen and its laughs are cathartic.
“Yes, God, Yes” opens at select drive-ins and virtual cinemas on July 24th. A full list is here.