Dir: Karen Maine. Starring: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons, Wolfgang Novogratz, Francesca Reale, Susan Blackwell. 15 cert, 77 mins
Natalia Dyer has a strangely efficient way of acting out Catholic guilt. It’s all in her smile, a tight curl of the lip which suggests ardour, illicit thrill, and timidity all at once. With this one expression, the Stranger Things star sets the tone for writer-director Karen Maine’s sweetly candid Yes, God, Yes. Inspired by her own adolescent experiences, the film cocoons itself in the mundane details of growing up both Catholic (the ubiquitous “Footprints in the Sand” poem) and in the early Noughties (games of Snake on a Nokia phone).
Dyer plays Alice, a teen torn between two realities. The first is one of piety, imposed by her school, where students live in fear of God’s watchful eye. Here, Mrs Veda (Donna Lynne Champlin) patrols the halls, issuing damnation to any girl caught with a skirt shorter than two and a half inches above the knee. But then there’s the deeper, unignorable urge – one which rises to the surface on an AOL chat room, when “hairychest1956” invites Alice to peruse some erotic pictures of him and his wife.
Maine’s script shrewdly reveals how these two devotions – the heavenly and the carnal – live inside each of her characters. As Alice discovers, there’s a big difference between what is preached out in the open and pursued in private. At school, she worries about her reputation, after a rumour starts to circulate about her and a classmate Wade (Parker Wierling) – that she “tossed his salad” behind his girlfriend’s back. Why won’t anyone tell her what “tossing someone’s salad” actually involves? Do they even know?
She heads off to a four-day spiritual retreat, hoping it might purify her in the eyes of her classmates. Everyone there is eager to reassure her that the profound awkwardness of the place is entirely intentional. Groups of students sit around in circles and share stories of dead grandmothers and absentee parents, as if everyone were trying to make themselves as pitiable as possible in the eyes of the Lord.
In charge of activities is Father Murphy (Veep’s Timothy Simons), the school’s resident priest, who nonchalantly reminds his students that sex can only come after marriage, and only then for the purposes of procreation – masturbation is simply “not part of God’s plan”. He’s a hypocrite. So are the ever-chipper, quietly judgemental camp counsellors.
But Maine’s film pulls back from an all-out, scathing critique of abstinence-led sex education. It shows no scorn towards its characters, but sees them all as flies caught up in a vast, unyielding web. Fr Murphy tells his students that men are like microwaves, women are like ovens – because, he insists, “ladies need to preheat”. Ignorance spreads like a toxic cloud. Soon, Alice starts to wonder whether she’s committed a sin by rewinding her Titanic VHS back (twice!) to the car sex scene.
Yes, God, Yes keeps its drama low-key, but its world richly textured. Alice’s character is built up from a series of images – chipped nail polish, a bowl of cheese puffs, and chocolate pudding smeared across front teeth. Her sexual awakening is triggered partly by the hairy, muscular arms of counsellor Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), partly by the discovery of her phone’s vibrate setting. The film serves as an ode to the sexually naive – pioneers in their own pleasure.
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