It’s Self Pleasure Vs. Eternal Damnation In Karen Maine’s Promising Debut, ‘Yes, God, Yes’

Horny high schooler Alice (Natalia Dyer) is in the process of discovering masturbation, but her sex-demonizing Catholic school is determined to shame her for it. That more or less describes the entirety of Yes, God, Yes, writer/director Karen Maine’s 77-minute riff on jilling off at Jesus camp (hey, good title), a pleasant enough and consistently chuckle-worthy comedy while it lasts that could maybe use one or two more ingredients.

It’s 2001. Dial up internet reigns and high schoolers play snake on their ubiquitous Nokia brick phones. Alice is getting really into AOL chat rooms and kinda accidentally on purpose discovers that she likes touching herself, as one does. Which is a problem, because the priest who teaches her morality class (Timothy Simon, best known as Jonah from Veep) just told the whole class than anyone who has premarital sex or sexually pleasures themselves in any way that doesn’t lead to procreation is bound for eternal damnation. This after an analogy comparing men’s’ and women’s respective sexualities to a microwave and an old-timey oven (because women take a while to heat up and you have to get the dials just right).

Yes, they really laid it on thick in sex ed in those post-AIDs scare, mid-purity rings days in the late nineties and early aughts. Maine, making her directorial debut after co-writing the underground success abortion comedy Obvious Child, draws on her real-life experiences attending a weekend-long purity nature camp in the Midwest, a setting which makes up the bulk of her movie. It’s there that Alice meets her new crush, Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), a hulking dopey football player whose hairy forearms make Alice strangely but undeniably horny — in sequences slightly reminiscent of Election or Eighth Grade.

Maine’s cast does a wonderful job more or less from top to bottom and pretty much all of Yes, God, Yes’s bits and riffs are well-structured and funny. The only-early-aughts-kids nostalgia is both its own reward at times and occasionally a nice spice that turns the comedy up a notch, such as in the scene set to “Shine” by Collective Soul. That song truly was inescapable.

The setting and content strongly evoke Lady Bird and Saved! (Maine does have wonderful taste in influences), but there is also the sense that Yes, God, Yes is set in 2001 not just because that year is personal to its creator, but because its major conflict (worrying about going to hell for masturbating) would feel quaint almost to the point of banality in 2020. When Alice eventually meets an unlikely mentor (a conventionally unconventional lesbian bar owner), the movie seems to treat the mentor’s glib advice as something profound.

Yes, God, Yes‘s lightness is both refreshing (again, only 77 minutes long) and ultimately a little unfulfilling. Natalia Dyer, who looks at times in the film like a skeptical sparrow, can convey a tremendous range of emotions just with her big blue eyes, though it’s hard not to wish her character arc wasn’t quite so obvious.

Yes, God, Yes does so many things right, in casting, acting, and joke structure, that it feels like a solid portfolio piece for most of the people involved. That it needed a little more complexity in its themes and characters makes it hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend as its own movie, but certainly makes an effective teaser for whatever Maine and this crew decide to do next with a little more time and budget.

‘Yes, God, Yes,’ releases July 24th in virtual cinemas and drive-ins, July 28th on digital and VOD. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.