Yes, God, Yes (2019)

2020 #191
Karen Maine | 78 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yes, God, Yes

It’s the early 2000s, and Alice (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) is a pupil at an ultra-Christian high school (“in America” goes without saying there, right?) But Alice is feeling conflicted. In morality class, she’s being taught about the wrongs of sex, while at home she likes to rewind the Titanic VHS to rewatch the sex scene. One day, a chat on AOL turns naughty, and Alice finds herself putting her hand down her skirt and… well… Of course, for a good indoctrinated little Christian girl, access to pleasure is not an instant revelation, and soon she’s off to her school’s weekend camp to learn to connect with Jesus, or something. Instead, she’ll learn a little something about the hypocrisy of those around her.

It would be easy to label Yes, God, Yes a “cumming of age movie” (such a pun is certainly not below my level of humour), but it would feel slightly inaccurate. Put another way, if you’ve come to see Nancy Wheeler cum, you’ll be disappointed. There is, perhaps, a whole analysis of the film to be written from the starting point that Alice doesn’t seem to reach orgasm — I mean, the film already (comically) touches on the difference between men and women in this regard; but also, Alice only needs to touch herself to feel sinful and transgressive, so how would she feel if she got ‘all the way’? But I am not necessarily best placed to write such an analysis of the depiction of female self-pleasure. It could be as simple as the fact the film has a female writer-director and didn’t want to show that moment on screen, for any number of reasons.

A touching moment

Indeed, despite it providing the plot hook and title, wanking is only one part of the film’s exposure of religious hypocrisy when it comes to sex. Alice’s desire to go to camp is as much provoked by a nasty rumour doing the rounds at school as it is by her personal discoveries. Said rumour is that, at a party, Alice “tossed the salad” of a classmate. She has no idea what this means; everyone else seems to know (if you don’t know either, don’t worry, the film has a dictionary definition at the start). Alice may go to an ultra-conservative school that teaches repressive values, but it’s clear her classmates are still learning about the wider world from elsewhere, while she believes everything she’s being taught and remains naïve. Ironically, the camp does teach her something about herself, just not what was intended. It’s the realisation of Christianity’s hypocrisy, more so than of the power of touching herself, that prompts Alice’s personal development by the end of the film.

Throughout all this personal revelation, the film leans heavily on Natalia Dyer’s ability to convey confused inner thoughts with just her face, and fortunately she’s up to the task. Indeed, it feels like overkill on the handful of occasions when it resorts to underlining a point via a kind of flashback-audio. We get what Alice is thinking when she looks at a microwave, we don’t need the soundtrack to repeat the Father’s microwave/oven analogy. Nonetheless, such moments are relatively rare, and instead we’re left to identify with the shy, wary, quiet Alice — something I’m sure a lot of us can relate to from our own adolescence. And if your own adolescence occurred around the turn of the millennium, boy does this film have you pinned down: playing Snake on a Nokia phone; AOL chatrooms… Small incidental details that very much specify the time (and place — AOL wasn’t such a thing here in the UK, but we had our alternatives).

Christian 'teaching'

I’m surprised I’ve managed to get this far in the review without calling up Saved!, a film to which Yes, God, Yes bears more than a passing resemblance. For those who’ve not seen it (why not? It was on my list of 100 Favourites over four years ago!), Saved is about a girl at an ultra-Christian high school in the early ’00s who discovers religious hypocrisy after a sex-related revelation. Both films criticise that hypocrisy through humour and satire. The main difference is that Saved is an outright comedy, whereas Yes, God, Yes is a comedy-drama, where its laughs come more from wry observations grounded in real-life rather than outright comedic bits, which is perhaps the result of it being semi-autobiographical by writer-director Karen Maine. Others have compared it to Lady Bird, another semi-autobiographical early-’00s-set coming-of-age drama about a girl at a Christian high school, including her first experiences with sex.

But let’s not lean too heavily on the fact there have been other films a bit like this, because Yes, God, Yes is still its own beast — more grounded than Saved; hornier than Lady Bird. If it seems more focused, or even niche, than some other coming-of-age movies, is that a bad thing? Part of the point about recent calls to enable more women and people of colour to make films is that we get to hear new stories and different perspectives, and Yes, God, Yes is an example of exactly that.

4 out of 5

Yes, God, Yes is available to rent and buy digitally in the UK as of yesterday.

Life of Pi (2012)

2015 #107
Ang Lee | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, Taiwan, UK, Canada & France / English, Tamil, French, Japanese, Hindi & Chinese | PG / PG

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
11 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Song, Best Production Design.


Life of Pi“Unfilmable” — now there’s an adjective you don’t hear tossed about so much these days. For a long time it seemed like it was all the rage to label novels “unfilmable”, but at this point too many ‘unfilmable’ novels have been filmed, and the wonders of CGI have put paid to anything ever again being unfilmable for practical or visual reasons. It may still be an apposite descriptor for works that feature very literary storytelling, though if you can render something like the subjective and unreliable narrator of Fight Club on screen — and in a movie that many regard as being superior to the novel, too — then there are few boundaries in that realm either. And someone even made On the Road, so just as soon as The Catcher in the Rye gets filmed we can probably put “unfilmable” to bed forever.

Yann Martel’s internationally-renowned Booker Prize-winner Life of Pi is one novel that used to have that adjective attached (of course it was — that would’ve been a pretty stupid introductory paragraph otherwise, wouldn’t it?) I’ve never read the novel, but I suspect it may’ve earnt the label for both of the above reasons, because it concerns, literally, the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and, figuratively, the very nature of storytelling itself — not to mention the purpose of religion and the existence of God. Never has “from the director of Hulk” seemed less pertinent.

Said director — Ang Lee, of course — did win one of this film’s four Oscars. Match that with two of its others — namely, for cinematography and visual effects — and you get an inkling of one of the film’s most praised facets. Whatever one thinks of the film’s story and themes (and I’ll come to those), it looks incredible. This is the kind of film that demands the increased resolution and colour palette of HD; it may even demand the 3D it was shot in, because watching in 2D it felt clear that wasn’t its native format — not because of the old cliché of things being thrust in the viewers’ collective face (well, only once or twice), Tiger's talebut because of almost-indefinable features of each shot’s crispness, its depth of field, even the compositions. It absolutely works in 2D, and it didn’t leave me longing for 3D in quite the same way as something like the swooping aerial sequences of How to Train Your Dragon, but, unlike with the majority of movies released in 3D, I did feel like I wasn’t seeing the director’s full vision.

Nonetheless, Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography proved controversial in some quarters. While the movie is indeed beautifully shot, swathes of it are also awash with CGI, so I think there’s some merit to the argument that it doesn’t count as photography. Conversely, I’d actually argue that the real-world bits look even more glorious than the digitally-rendered parts, on balance. Sure, you have the obvious spectacle of the psychedelic whale-jump, featured heavily in trailers and on the Blu-ray 3D cover, and the painterly skies and seas while in the lifeboat; but the early sequences in India, bursting with crisp, luscious colour in the zoo or at a nighttime light festival, are in some respects even more memorable.

To give with one hand and take with the other, however, I felt that the pair of aspect ratio shifts were utterly pointless and, worse, distracting. Firstly, I believe 2.35:1 was used for the flying fish scene to make the sequence feel more epic, and to allow the fish to jump further out of the screen. Well, in 2D the latter is lost entirely; and on TV (and possibly in the cinema, presuming the screen-space got thinner rather than wider), the movie suddenly feels constrained — the exact opposite effect to when films like The Dark Knight or Hunger Games 2 open out for their IMAX sequences, for instance. The book cover shotLater, the 4:3 “book cover” shot is just pure indulgence. There’s no reason not to just have empty sea to the left and right of frame, and the “it’s emulating the book cover!” reason/excuse doesn’t come close to passing muster simply because book covers aren’t 4:3. In both cases, then, what was intended to be striking or clever or innovative or in some way effective, I guess, comes across as pointless and distracting and pretentious.

And if we’re talking daft choices, don’t get me started on the meerkat-infested carnivorous island…! Maybe there’s some Deeper Meaning there — or, later, is the film deliberately lampshading the island’s total lack of meaning, when Pi tells the journalist that there doesn’t need to be meaning if it’s just what happened? Whatever — for me, it only served to make 110% sure we know (spoilers!) that Pi’s whole story is definitely BS. In that respect, the bizarre fancifulness was heavy-handed.

Ah, the story. To be honest, I liked it a little better a year later when it was called All is Lost; some people liked it better a decade earlier, when the tiger was a volleyball called Wilson. The striking imagery of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger makes one assume that’s what the film’s About, but it’s not really About that at all. If you’re expecting a pure adventure on a life-raft, the long preamble where Pi describes his early experiences of religion must seem utterly pointless, but it all feeds back in at the end when we come to the point of Pi’s — well, Martel’s — tale.

I’m going to discuss the end while avoiding direct spoilers, but, honestly, any foreknowledge of the film’s (possible) message(s) is liable to colour your perception; so if you’ve not seen it, it may be best to skip the next paragraph until later.

TranscendentalReading around a little online, it seems that some people have interpreted the film’s message as being a defence of/justification for/persuasion towards religious faith, and hate it for that. This interests me, because I — coming, I suspect, from a similar perspective on religion — read it as a subtle condemnation of religious stories. Actually, not a condemnation, but a tacit acceptance of the fact that such stories are a nice fairytale, but not the truth. To put it another way, I took the message to be (more or less) that religion is an obvious fiction which people choose to believe because it’s a nicer story than the more plausible alternative, neither of which are provable. I think some focus on the point that the journalist hearing Pi’s story is told it will make him believe in God, and, at the end, the journalist seems to accept that it does. I don’t think that’s the film’s contention, though; I think the film is, in a way, explaining why people believe in God. Or maybe there are just no easy answers.

Seeking those answers, Rafe Spall is very good in what amounts to a tiny supporting role… but then, I have a fondness for him as an actor (his excellent, just-the-right-side-of-OTT turn as a gangster’s unhinged psychopathic son is the only real reason to watch The Shadow Line), so I may be biased. One must also single out Suraj Sharma, an unknown cast almost by accident when he accompanied his brother to the auditions, but who gives a good turn even when mostly performing opposite a CG tiger, a CG sea, CG fish, more CG…

Living the Pi lifeI found Life of Pi to be a little bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, where moments of transcendent wonder-of-cinema beauty rub up against instances of thumb-twiddling; where insightful or emotional revelations rub shoulders with pretentious longueurs. There is much to admire, but there are also parts to endure. The balance of reception lies in its favour, but while some love it unequivocally, a fair number seem to despise it with near-equal fervour. Either way, it’s definitely a film worth watching, and in the best possible quality you can manage, too. It also made me want to read the book, which for a movie I wasn’t even sure how much I liked is certainly an unusual, but positive, accomplishment.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Life of Pi is on Channel 4 (and 4HD) tonight at 9pm.