For all its sharp barbs at Catholic school hypocrisy and its frank depictions of masturbation and teenage hook-ups, “Yes, God, Yes” somehow retains a breezy and upbeat and even sweet disposition, thanks to the light touch of writer-director Karen Maine and an absolutely winning performance by “Stranger Things” star Natalia Dyer as a 16-year-old schoolgirl who is simultaneously exploring her sexuality while combatting nasty gossip about her performing a certain activity with a classmate who has a girlfriend.
I can’t even describe the term for this particular act. (Or should I say, I’d rather not.) Suffice to say Dyer’s Alice not only didn’t perform it, she has no idea what it even means, which makes it all the more hilarious every time she repeats the phrase to the amusement of others.
In less nuanced hands, “Yes, God, Yes” could have been like one of those leering teenage sex comedies from the 1980s, but Maine’s semi-autobiographical tale strikes just the right notes over its 74-minute running time — and while the material may be objectionable to some, this Roman Catholic found it to be hilarious and engaging. Sure, much of the humor is over the top, but there are essential truths ringing throughout.
“Yes, God, Yes” is set in the Midwest in the early 2000s, at a Catholic high school where the hipster, youngish priest Father Murphy (Timothy Simons from “Veep”) connects with the students on their own terms while reminding them the purpose of sex is to procreate, that one must wait until after marriage to have sex — and masturbation is a sin because it means you’re having sex with yourself, and you can’t get yourself pregnant, right?
With period-piece songs such as Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and Collective Soul’s “Shine” popping on the soundtrack, Alice has begun to explore her sexuality. She plays the steam-the-car-windows scene from “Titanic” over and over on VHS, and she logs onto an AOL Chat Room where a couple sends her provocative photos. This is the moment when Alice discovers the joys of masturbation, much to her surprise. (The scene is not graphic, and is played mostly for gentle laughs, as Dyer’s facial expressions capture the mixture of wonder and excitement and maybe a little fear Alice is experiencing.)
Meanwhile, someone has started a rumor about Alice hooking up with the handsome and dopey and jerky Wade (Parker Wierling). Alice is labeled a “slut,” and even her best friend Laura (Francesca Reale, also of “Stranger Things”) begins to doubt her. At a weekend retreat, Alice discovers Father Murphy isn’t as righteous as he claims to be and certain classmates who are preaching celibacy aren’t practicing what they preach. At one point, Alice literally runs away from the camp, and winds up in a bar where she meets a lesbian and lapsed Catholic (Susan Blackwell in a scene-stealing cameo), who does a better job of mentoring the girl in five minutes than her teachers have done over the entire semester. It’s in that moment we know Alice doesn’t have an easy road ahead, but she’s bright and kind and good, and she’ll find the path that suits her best. She deserves to be happy.