It’s never been a secret that religion and healthy relationships to sexuality are usually at opposite ends of a very unnecessary binary. But Yes, God, Yes, the directorial debut of Obvious Child writer Karen Maine, gets at why sex-negative religious instruction is so harmful to developing teens, and how it hurts teen girls especially. Her conclusion? Catholic school is hell on earth.
Set in the early 2000s, Yes, God Yes follows 16-year old Alice (Natalia Dyer) after a rumor about her engaging in a sex act at a party spreads through the school. Though the rumor is untrue, Alice still feels guilty because she has been exploring her burgeoning sexuality through racy AOL chatrooms. In an attempt to rehabilitate her image and reclaim her sense of religious devotion, she attends a school-sponsored weekend retreat. But instead of putting her back on the path of “righteousness,” the retreat exposes her to the hypocrisy of requiring abstinence from teenagers when sex is such a natural part of the human experience.
Dyer plays Alice with the right tonal balance of teenage curiosity and childlike naiveté. When the ill-fated rumor reaches her, she’s equal parts shocked and intrigued. She doesn’t know what it means to “toss someone’s salad” but she does know exactly where in Titanic the sex scene happens, and she watched it three times in a row. It doesn’t matter what she actually knows, though—in the space of one afternoon, her reputation has been recast, and the school’s Kirkos retreat is the only thing that might set it right.
In telling Alice’s story the film hammers home both the sexual double standard that exists between teen boys and girls and the social pressure from other girls to be chaste. Regaining her reputation isn’t just a matter of illuminating the truth, it’s about shedding her new image as a fallen woman. There is a social currency to be had from being perceived as a good Catholic by her peers and to uphold and emulate the ideal of the virginal mother of God. When that changes, her relationships shift—teachers scorn her and her best friend Laura (Francesca Luisa Real) no longer wants to be associated with her. For the girls, there’s a competitive nature to being the most pure—if they can avoid any appearance of religious impropriety they’re golden. If they can’t, they’ll be shunned.
Alice tries to engage with the retreat in good faith but is continually shamed for what the rest of us can recognize as normal, teenage feelings of lust and desire. In one sequence, she’s introduced to beautiful himbo Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz) and fixates on his hairy forearm. It’s a small moment, but it perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be horny at that age. It doesn’t take much to set the senses on fire when your developing body is telling you to vigorously hump everything that moves.
For the boys, it’s different. Chris is a student leader at the retreat and on the school’s football team. He’s enthusiastic about God and open about engaging with Alice and the other students. But he’s also a teenager. Alice spends lots of time orchestrating ways for them to be alone together, and on one such occasion, she springs on him, overcome. They make out briefly and enthusiastically until Chris recoils, horrified, unwanted boner in tow. “You turned me on like a microwave!” he yells accusingly before running off. It’s a reference to a pathetic metaphor offered earlier in the film by retreat leader Father Murphy (Timothy Simons)—boys get turned on like microwaves. It only takes pushing a few buttons. Girls though, they’re like convection ovens. They require a little “preheating.”
Later, Alice confronts Wade (Parker Wierling), the student whose salad she presumably tossed. Wade assumes Alice started the rumor and is angry that his girlfriend almost dumped him because of it. But when Alice asks why he hasn’t actually been refuting the allegation, he has nothing to say. It’s all well and good to call Alice a slut and let her bear the brunt of social stigma, but despite his protestations, there’s value for Wade in being perceived as sexually dominant.
Largely, Alice is just curious about sex and sexuality, and during the four days that she’s at the retreat she realizes that not only is that curiosity normal, she’s also not the only one who’s experiencing it. She tries to masturbate using the vibrations of her old Nokia cellphone and rubs against a broom handle when she spies two students engaging in oral sex from a window. But she also discovers that Father Murphy has been watching porn on his office computer despite railing against the ills of non-procreative sex.
It’s only when she runs away to a local bar that she starts to get the information she actually needs. The owner Gina (Susan Blackwell) tells her that she also used to be Catholic, but she moved away from religion when she realized that the fear of hell was hampering her ability to live a full life. Alice unloads her own fears and shames and realizes with Gina’s help that the worries she’s carrying only matter if she lets them. After everything she’s been dealing with, it only takes one rational, secular voice to help Alice understand that she is not a sinner for paying attention to the fact that her body—and her desires—are becoming more adult.
Renewed, she returns to camp and eventually back to school, where she attends confession with Father Murphy and subtly calls him out on his hypocrisy by alluding to what she saw. Finally, she understands that the entire system is a ruse—not even those tasked with upholding the rules can follow them all the time. She doesn’t need to beat up on herself for failing.
Yes, God, Yes does an excellent job of relaying how all-consuming the shame of Catholic guilt can be. Through Alice we get to see that the stakes aren’t just about social stigma—thought that is real and omnipresent—but the sincere belief that lapses in constructed morals will lead to an eternity of damnation. That kind of sexual education is damaging to teens who are just trying to figure out how to have healthy relationships to their bodies.
In the movie’s final scene, Alice picks up a handheld back massager, sticks it down her skirt, and finally starts to masturbate with abandon before the screen fades to black. Simple as it is, the moment feels like a triumphant reclamation of female sexuality. For the first time, Alice is allowing herself to enjoy her own body without guilt, shame, or trepidation. If Yes, God, Yes does only one thing, it will probably be to encourage the audience to reexamine and release their relationship to sexual shame. Teen comedies are rife with jokes about errant boners and masturbating boys, but for once, Yes, God, Yes gives us a young woman who just wants to get off too.