Yes, God, Yes (2020)
★ / ★★★★
Karen Maine’s directorial debut needs a massive electric shock to the chest because it is dramatically and comically dead. For a story about a teenager who is raised in a Catholic household, attends Catholic school, and is neck-deep into the Catholic community, it should be filled to the brim with savage humor—and genuine humanity. After all, its purpose is two-fold: to underline the countless hypocrisies within such institutions (students of faith and leaders alike) and how such organizations tend to create young adults who are ill-equipped to handle the world outside of one’s bubble. “Yes, God, Yes” means well. But it is toothless.
Natalya Dyer plays Alice, our central protagonist who chooses to follow her curiosity. I enjoyed her performance for the most part; I believed the mix of horror and temptation in those eyes every time Alice faces new situations—often sexual—like receiving racy photos from firstname.lastname@example.org, being invited to partake in cyber sex, discovering the pleasure of masturbation, and learning about what “tossing salad” actually means. Dyer is required to walk the line between being naive and sheltered without coming across as dumb or stupid. She gives the impression that she’s aware of the fact that pushing the character to the latter extreme, especially a work peppered with satirical elements, is likely to make Alice unworthy of our time. She acts with intention, but the material is not worthy of Dyer’s talent.
The story unfolds in two places: at the Catholic school and at a four-day Catholic retreat. The former is a near waste of time—and film—when it absolutely should not have been. In smart comedies, expository sequences manage to lay out the stakes. In this film, we meet Alice but everyone else around her is a complete and utter bore, from Alice’s fair-weather best friend Laura (Francesca Reale), Alice’s crush Wade (Parker Wierling)—who has a girlfriend, to the by-the-book Father Murphy (Timothy Simons).
Although these supposedly key figures—ones who will help, inadvertently, our heroine to solidify her attitude toward living her own life, under her own terms, while still possibly holding onto her faith—attend the retreat with Alice, they are not given anything of note to say or do. Instead, they drop in and out whenever convenient to say the same things only using different words. Halfway through, we still wait for the supporting characters to act human. A comedy doesn’t work when everyone is a robot or a cardboard cutout. Where’s the funny in that?
We already know that religion and hypocrisy walk hand-in-hand. The writer-director appears to be stuck in this glaringly obvious and oft tread idea. What results is a lack of dramatic parabola. The movie is tonally flat; events happen but they offer no effective punchlines. Maine fails to evolve her story in a way that is believable, pointed, perhaps even heartfelt. I got the impression as though she thinks her audience are composed only of high school students who possess an extremely narrow definition of religion, that perhaps religion and faith are synonymous. We all know it isn’t. It’s more complex than that.
I felt neither challenge nor a daringness to this picture. If it is a passion project, I felt no passion from it either. With so many first-time filmmakers appearing to put their all into their debut piece, if what’s on display here is all what Maine has to offer, I question her as a storyteller. Because if that’s all there is, she’d be wise to find a new vocation. Still, I hope I am proven wrong in her next film. (If there is a next one.) It’s always nice to be surprised.