Writer-director Karen Maine’s first gained notice with the short film that became the feature “Obvious Child,” a comedy about an abortion. So a movie about a Catholic schoolgirl’s intellectual and sexual awakening during the AOL era is pretty tame stuff, by comparison.
“Yes, God, Yes” doesn’t have the built-in laughs that casting a comic (Jenny Slate) as its star pretty much guarantees. But Maine still manages to find gold, silver mostly, in the over-mined teen “coming of age” genre. It’s a comedy of nervous giggles of recognition, a few good laughs and enlightened compassion in the darnedest places.
It may seem as if Alicia’s “problems” start with a high school rumor. You know the type, the ones that sully or exaggerate somebody’s sexual reputation with a “she put out at a party.” Skinny, shy Alicia (Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things”) is told by her prettier and judgier best friend Laura (Francesca Reale of “Stranger Things”) that everybody is saying Alicia “tossed salad” with Ward in a stolen moment at a party.
“It’s all over school!”
As “school” is a Catholic high school where 16 year-old Alicia is a favorite of the teacher’s, that’s a problem. The daily messaging, delivered in “Morality” class — “Have you watched the ‘partial birth abortion’ video yet?” — and everywhere else, is “God is always watching!” The most sophisticated lectures on sexuality are passed along by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons of “Veep”).
“Guys are like microwaves,” always ready to go and over and done with in a flash. “Ladies are like conventional ovens. They require…preheating.”
But as naive as Alicia is — “I don’t know what salad dressing even MEANS” (it’s defined in an opening title) — she’s not as behind the curve as she seems. When he gets homes, she boots up her personal computer and drops in on AOL Chatrooms.
There, she can hide her inexperience and ignorance behind a screen name, and get in over her head in a flash with the likes of “hairychest1956” or “backseat lover81”
A world of shared porn and self exploration awaits.
But peer pressure at Alicia’s high school points her in the opposite direction. You’ve got to go to a four-day “Kirkos” retreat with classmates, upper class group leaders and nuns and priests supervising group sessions, beatifically smiling peers (Alisha Boe and Wolfgang Novogratz) confiscate phones and watches (“You’re on JESUS’ time here!”) and conformity is practiced, urged and enforced with little side servings of Catholic guilt.
Maine doesn’t turn any of the adults here into cartoon ogres. There are Catholic martinets (Donna Lynne Champlin) and stern, judgmental clerics, and parents who just sort of do what they’ve always done, “for the sake of the children,” of course.
But bus-riding to camp with “a reputation” makes Alicia a bit of a rebel. She hides her second-gen cell-phone (this is set pre-9/11 2001 or so) because, you know, it uh, vibrates.
And being an outcast lets her see things, that the straight and narrow aren’t always straight or as narrow-minded as they seem.
The kid cast do well by the collection of high school “types” they play, but Dyer is a wide-eyed revelation. She’s meek on the outside, Aubrey Plaza (sexually carnivorous) on the inside, and for all the judgment heaped on her for something she hasn’t done, she’s not going to let that cow her as she’s figuring out what she wants to do, and whether or not she should care what dogma or authority thinks of it.
It’s a terrifically drawn character and Dyer lets us believe she’s figuring it out as she goes, harboring less guilt every step of the way.
“Yes, God, Yes” (streaming in July) doesn’t tackle a trigger topic like abortion. But Maine’s still made a teen sex comedy with heart, smarts and subtlety that Netflix, which owns this genre, rarely bothers with.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and some nudity
Cast: Natalia Dyer, Francesca Reale, Timothy Simons, Wolfgang Novogratz, Donna Lynne Champlin and Alisha Boe
Credits: Written and directed by Karen Maine. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:18