'Yes, God, Yes': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of SXSW
Masturbatory in the best possible way.

Karen Maine's film is an upbeat comedy about a Catholic school girl’s struggle to make sense of her sexuality.

The coming-of-age drama Yes, God, Yes, writer-director Karen Maine's feature debut, is an upbeat story about a Catholic school girl’s struggle to make sense of her sexuality. Specifically, it’s a movie about masturbation. Lots and lots of masturbation. But it avoids the low-hanging fruit of gross bodily-function humor and instead offers a fresh look at what solo explorations of sexuality can look like for a girl in the Midwest indoctrinated by limiting ideas about sex.

An AOL chat room leads Alice (Stranger Things' Natalia Dyer) to discover what it feels like to get turned on for the first time, and unlike in countless other tales about teen girls, her sexual satisfaction comes not from sleeping with someone, but from self-pleasure. Things escalate from there as a rumor goes around her high school that she “tossed the salad” with her crush Wade (Parker Wierling), who has a girlfriend. The one memorable moment of cinematography in the film is an exterior shot of the school, a dull brick building with harsh angles that capture the subtext of that judgmental environment. There Alice develops a reputation as a slut and ultimately spends much of the movie trying to overcome her scarlet letter while at the same time still hungering for sexual gratification.   

The bulk of the pic unfolds on a school retreat where Alice and her peers are encouraged to deepen their faith and be vulnerable in a group setting. An earnest, repressed priest named Father Murphy (Veep's Timothy Simons) and a pregnant, snippy teacher named Mrs. Veda (Donna Lynne Champlin), along with a group of youth pastor-types, lead the retreat. It’s here that we learn that the devout and reverent Catholics who have been pontificating about the evils of sex are not what they seem. The film settles into a particularly joyful groove as Alice finds some much-needed clarity that propels her toward her personal truth for the first time. In a scene that calls to mind Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Alice ends up in a lesbian bar where the owner (wonderfully played by Susan Blackwell) provides wise counsel and gives her a wider perspective than the narrow viewpoints that have been torturing her.

Maine injects the pop music sounds of the early 2000s so much in the film that the musical backdrop becomes a kind of Greek chorus. This gives the movie a more pronounced musicality than you might expect from a narrative drama that’s not a musical or about musicians. It's also how the particularity of Maine’s voice as a storyteller comes through most clearly. Between the soundtrack (TLC’s “Unpretty,” Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle”) and the film’s original score, the presence of music feels all-pervading, which sometimes undermines the performances of her strong ensemble cast.

Recovering Catholics will likely find this movie therapeutic. Devout followers of Catholicism, however, will probably bristle much of the way through as the pic just stops short of being a full-on mockumentary of the Catholic Church. Unlike one of its filmic peers, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Catholicism and the mostly hypocritical Catholics in the movie are the butt of nearly every joke. (The story is largely based on Maine’s real-life experience growing up in Iowa in a Catholic family. She no longer identifies as Catholic.) Sometimes it feels like the film wants to go even harder at Catholicism than it does, but it holds back as if aware that it will offend. Maine’s righteous — though perhaps unresolved — anger toward the Catholic Church sometimes distracts viewers from the larger story being told. It’s the kind of pic conservatives would hold up as a perfect example of godless liberals mocking the faith of people with sincere religious beliefs.

Nevertheless, Yes, God, Yes is a fun and entertaining ride that unfolds at just the right speed. It gets in and out of scenes with noticeable fluidity — it’s hard to recall even one scene in the movie that dawdled — and is able to stitch together a memorable quilt of cinematic moments. The script proves effective at inserting simple elements of dramatic tension into scenes that would have otherwise fallen flat — as when Alice hides in a broom closet with a handful of food fished out of a garbage disposal and nowhere to toss it, or the sight of a hugely pregnant Mrs. Veda throughout the film, a visual nod to the ever-present elephant in the room (sex). Moments like these add up to something powerful, and that is a feat in a movie whose subject matter could have easily made for disaffected navel gazing. Yes, God, Yes is masturbatory in the best possible way.

Cast: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons, Wolfgang Novogratz, Francesca Reale, Susan Blackwell, Parker Wierling, 
Alisha Boe, Donna Lynne Champlin
Writer-director: Karen Maine
Producers: Katie Cordeal, Colleen Hammond, Eleanor Columbus, Rodrigo Teixeira
Executive producers: Chris Columbus, Lourenço Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Karen Maine
Director of photography: Todd Antonio Somodevilla
Music: Ian Hultquist
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Production designer: Sally Levi
Costume designer: Brittany Loar
Casting: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy, Erica Arvold
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: Joanna Korshak, Christine D’Souza (Endeavor Content)

77 minutes