Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
It is the fall of 2000. It is a world of chunky cellphones, dial-up modems, AOL Instant Messaging, and VHS tapes. Alice (a mesmerizingly authentic Natalia Dyer) is a high school junior in a strict mid-western Catholic school. Written and directed with insight and an incredibly skilled hand, Karen Maine has created an engaging coming-of-age story, Yes, God, Yes. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and brutally honest.
The film opens with a teacher (the wonderfully dour Donna Lynne Champlin) passing out detentions and monitoring the hall like an avenging meter maid. This sets the tone for the emotionally claustrophobic atmosphere in the school, where abstinence is taught and (seemingly) embraced by the student body.
What comes to light very quickly is that Alice is the subject of an unsavory rumor about an occurrence at a recent party. The scandal spreads as Alice tries to quell the accusation that she doesn’t fully understand. She is both buoyed up and beaten down by her BFF, Laura (Francesca Reale, bringing just the right amount of acid to this borderline mean girl). Alice is also struggling with her burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality and desires, which further complicate the already challenging situation.
The majority of the film takes place on a four-day Kirkos retreat, where the students go to connect with themselves and with their connection to God and their religion. It is here that Alice comes face-to-face with both the caring and sensitivity of some of the students as well as the hypocrisy that often comes with repression.
Guilt and gossip flower along with misinformation. There are some extreme moments and some jaw-dropping revelations. There is also terrific humor. After Alice is punished for holding onto her cellphone, one of the girls gives her a s’more from the campfire she missed: “We pretended each marshmallow was a mortal sin before burning it.”
Maine pulls no punches. She presents these people in all of their flaws. And that is the heart of the film. She creates people and therefore legitimate tension. These are not the cyphers and stereotypes found in many teen movies. Instead, there is an inherent truth in her reflection of this particular corner of the universe.
Not all is played as satirical attack; there are instances of genuine compassion. One of the students leading the retreat, Nina (a warmly present Alisha Boe), tells how she has always felt absent in her large family. It is a touching moment and her sharing is met with sympathy and understanding. Letters from their parents are read out loud. Again, they are not greeted with smirks and eye rolls but appreciated with less embarrassment than would be expected. These are sweet and kind flashes of welcomed contrast.
But even in the midst of this idyllic retreat of finding self, the vicious buzz continues to haunt and chase Alice, leading her to several less than generous choices. Ultimately, she takes some if not all the responsibility one would hope.
Timothy Simons (Veep), as Father Murphy, the spiritual leader of both school and retreat, dodges complete caricature. He has some very questionable actions but there is a sense that, more often than not, he is attempting to do the right thing for these children in his care. He is eventually confronted with his own contradictions but it is not presented as a revenge opportunity but more a look at his personal fallibility.
Alice receives the best and most honest answers when she escapes into a lesbian bar. It is owner Gina (Susan Blackwell, grounded and kind) who gives Alice the best advice she gets the entire film — before bringing her back safely to the retreat.
The entire cast is excellent and the young actors manage to come across as “kids,” even in some of the more excessive sections. But it is Natalia Dyer’s Alice who is the heart and heartbeat of the film. In her life, she is both heroine and her own worst enemy. And Dyer makes every moment work.
Yes, God, Yes is not for everyone. It is crass in the way that young people are not always careful. It tells some unsavory truths. It is boundary-pushing and often cringe-inducing. But it is a beautiful, dimensional portrait of a genuine young person struggling in a real world.
Rated R, Yes, God, Yes is currently streaming on Netflix.