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.

Saved! (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #78

Heaven Help Us.

Country: USA & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 11th June 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 29th October 2004
First Seen: DVD, 2005

Stars
Jena Malone (Donnie Darko, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember, Tangled)
Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone, My Girl)
Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous, Wristcutters: A Love Story)
Eva Amurri (The Banger Sisters, The Life Before Her Eyes)

Director
Brian Dannelly (Struck by Lightning, Scream: The TV Series)

Screenwriters
Brian Dannelly (He Bop)
Michael Urban (Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf?)

The Story
When teen Mary learns her boyfriend is gay, a vision of Jesus leads her to attempt to cure him through sex. Unfortunately for her, the only result is she gets pregnant, which she decides to keep secret from friends and teachers at her ultra-Christian high school. As Mary questions her beliefs, she falls in with the school’s misfits, while her former friends endeavour to aggressively restore her faith.

Our Hero
Mary has “been born again her whole life”, but has her eyes opened a bit when her attempts to cure her homosexual boyfriend don’t go as Jesus promised.

Our Villain
Hilary Faye, the ‘perfect’ Christian who mainly uses her devotion to God to be the school’s queen bitch.

Best Supporting Characters
Hilary’s wheelchair-bound brother, Roland, and the school’s only “Jewish”, Cassandra, who come together with shared cynicism, but at heart better embody Christian values than some of their more militant schoolmates.

Memorable Quote
“Why would God make us so different if he wanted us to be the same?” — Mary

Memorable Scene
At the first assembly of the school year, cool headmaster Pastor Skip flips onto stage (“Give it up to the Lord, Jesus is in the house! Let’s get our Christ on, let’s kick it Jesus style! … Who’s down with G-O-D? Alright! Jesus rules! Jesus rules!”), before prayer time gives an insight into what everyone’s thinking (“thank you for sparing me from the eternal hell fires of damnation, I’m sorry I let that Promise Maker guy touch me in the rectory”), and then Cassandra starts ‘speaking in tongues’ (“mah puhsah issa hot puhsow”), though Hilary Faye sees through it (“she’s saying she’s got a hot p—!”)

Awards
2 Teen Choice Awards nominations (Movie Hissy Fit (Mandy Moore), Movie Sleazebag (Mandy Moore))

What the Critics Said
“Dannelly and Urban, first-time filmmakers, don’t have the ruthlessness of dedicated satirists like the writer-director team of Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, whose movies Citizen Ruth and Election are modern classics. But satire can sting without being ruthless. Saved! is a minor work, yet it has a teasing lilt to it, and to make it at all took courage and originality. […] Saved! is not an attack on Christianity; if anything, the movie wants to reassert the Christian spirit. But it goes after pious hypocrites, the kind of people who never stop speaking of love yet find an unaccountably large number of folks to hate.” — David Denby, The New Yorker

Score: 61%

What the Public Say
“many moments [are] screamingly funny but also sad in Brian Dannelly’s incisive, but not entirely irreverent, send-up of Christian fundamentalism. The title’s exclamation point isn’t for show, but questions Christianity’s constant urgency: Is salvation really unattainable for these kids if they’re not seeking it this second, every second, 24/7? […] Dannelly and Michael Urban’s script could’ve settled for empty-calorie satirical slapdowns, but instead posed thoughtful, challenging questions about the relative worthlessness of forced value systems.” — Nick Rogers, The Film Yap

Verdict

Mixing “mean girl” high school comedy with religious satire, which initially seems more cutting than it perhaps is, Saved! triumphs by having something to say but saying it very amusingly. Some criticise it for pulling its punches, not going all out in its damnation of religious types, but — conversely — that quality of mercy arguably makes it a better, more intelligent movie. It’s not saying having religious faith or sharing those values makes you inherently bad, but applying those beliefs hypocritically kinda does. Whatever your position on that matter, the screenplay’s gentle irreverence and the cast’s quality comic performances make it an often hilarious delight.

#79 will be… a lot of bother to rescue Matt Damon.