I watched “Yes, God, Yes” soon after its Oct. 22 Netflix release, curious to see Natalia Dyer star following her iconic “Stranger Things” role. I enjoyed the movie and quickly recommended it to a friend, who asked me, “Isn’t that the movie about a Catholic girl who masturbates?” Indeed, “Yes, God, Yes” deals unabashedly with themes of faith and sexuality, which earns it its R rating. But the film has too much heart and soul to be simply categorized as a raunchy coming-of-age flick.
In the film, set in 2000, teenager Alice attends a strict Catholic high school in a who-knows-where Midwestern town. Alice’s school is the type where sex-ed is rebranded as a “morality class,” in which students are taught that any sex outside of “one man, one woman and one marriage” is sinful. Constant judgment from her peers and admonition from authority figures makes Alice feel guilty about her emerging sexuality. Tense scenes brimming with anxious energy convey Alice’s unease over small moments of sexual exploration, like when she rewinds to a steamy scene in “Titanic” or asks about sex in AOL chat rooms.
When rumors spread that Alice “tossed the salad” of another student, she is swiftly ostracized by her classmates and even her teachers. With nowhere left to turn, Alice attends one of her school’s retreats in the hopes of finding peace with herself and her sexuality. However, her experience only reveals the hypocrisy of the church and makes her feel lonelier than ever. In the end, Alice learns that she must be honest to herself and embrace her own identity, not the church’s restrictive doctrines.
From the opening shots of a high school with white cinderblock walls, shiny linoleum flooring and harsh LED lighting, “Yes, God, Yes” feels grounded in reality. Even though I have not had a day of religious education in my life, I felt Alice’s confusion, angst and isolation. The film was written and directed by Karen Maine, who was strongly inspired by her own experience growing up in Iowa. Maine’s personal connection to the film likely contributes to this sense of intimacy with Alice and her struggle for self-discovery.
“Yes, God, Yes” feels refreshingly authentic, especially compared to similar movies that are popular on Netflix now. Other titles that feature life as a teenage girl, such as “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” or “The Half of It,” aim to inspire that relatable heartfelt effect in their audience. However, these films fall short because they retain the artificial veneer that plagues the teen film genre. I appreciate their attempts at new perspectives with “diverse” characters, but ultimately these films feel constrained by clichés of the genre in a way that “Yes, God, Yes” does not. Arguably, “Yes, God, Yes” does not follow the spirit of the “teen film genre” at all. Regardless, I appreciate its compelling yet understated portrayal of teen life.
Perhaps the reason why “Yes, God, Yes” feels like both a continuation of the coming-of-age tradition and a departure from the genre is because it addresses the same issues with a new framework. Sexuality in the film is a symbol of identity and self, in contrast with societal institutions (namely, the church). From the movie’s outset, authority figures describe sex as an act for others — solely for a spouse and for God, to make a child in God’s image. Alice feels so trapped by this Catholic sex narrative that she refuses to accept herself. This restraint is closely tied to her community at school and at the religious retreat; in fact, one of the few times in the film when she can be honest with herself and genuinely connect with others is when she physically escapes from the retreat and, ironically, finds sanctuary in a dive bar down the road.
As Alice takes ownership of her sexuality, she learns that sex (read: masturbation) can belong completely to herself, and that her sexuality is not beholden to the church. Along the way, she develops a sense of identity and independent thought that frees her from the restrictive institutions of the church and her community’s expectations. For the first time, she considers what it could mean to live her own life: whether it be trying sushi, masturbating or attending college outside of her home state.
“Yes, God, Yes” serves up familiar messages about independence and self-discovery through this lens, offering a fresh take on tried-and-true coming-of-age tropes. The application of these themes to topics as personal and raw as sexuality, in opposition to institutions as established and venerated as religion, gives “Yes, God, Yes” an extra sense of urgency and unflinching honesty. The movie’s tone can perhaps be captured in Alice’s succinct realization: “The truth is, we’re all just trying to figure out our shit.”