Yes, God, Yes doesn’t say anything new about oppressive evangelical traditions but is elevated thanks to Dyer’s wonderful comic performance.
Yes, God, Yes will be particularly resonant for a specific subsect of early millennials whose formative years were spent cocooned in the traditions of evangelical dogma. The age of Napster and dial-up and GeoCities was also, for many of us, the age of religiously-branded porn blockers and Christian ISPs and eMachines desktops located in dining rooms to discourage delinquent browsing. The debut feature from Karen Maine – here expanding her short film of the same name about a young Catholic schoolgirl (Natalia Dyer) who is tempted with self-pleasure after stumbling upon an explicit AOL chat room – doesn’t quite address the bizarre intersection of capitalist-minded technological entrepreneurship and early, naïve Luddite efforts to kiddify the internet, but it does indulge plenty of nostalgic reminders. Yes, God, Yes quickly namechecks Sam Goody as the best place to buy compact discs, while elsewhere summoning a time when private messages of course began with the conversation starter of a generation: “A/S/L?” With even more immediacy, Maine recalls (and proceeds to indict) the casually-inflicted trauma of fire-and-brimstone maxims taught to children. In addressing premarital sex and masturbation, Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) chastens his classroom: “That means no sex, with yourself or anyone else…Or else it is damnation for all eternity,” before leaving the students with the strange but familiar threat (elsewhere tweaked by Santa): “God is always watching you.”
Okay, so Yes, God, Yes is not a subtle film, but neither is it particularly deep. Attacking both the fascistic and cultish elements of religion is pretty low-hanging fruit, and Maine does the requisite legwork here: she condemns the personal hypocrisy of evangelical belief systems that instruct its adherents to hold others accountable to a prescribed moral code; the ideological misogyny of tradition, specifically the ways in which women are expected to abide a different degree of purity; and the cognitive dissonance required to reject a person’s most human elements when religion exists specifically to provide some existential surety precisely because of these weaknesses. The director remarked that her film’s subject matter is informed by her experience of growing up under this belief system, and for better and worse, it has the distinct feel of a personal film. But even if the film’s amusing attention to period detail is mostly observational fluff, Maine sharply presents shame as intrinsic to faith traditions, developing this angle not just through the film’s “sinner” and her epiphanous narrative, but also through all of its supposed saints.
And that is ultimately what works best in Yes, God, Yes: It would be easy to construct an embittered attack on religious indoctrination, but Maine’s film demonstrates a gentle undercurrent of empathy in addition to its consistent humor. The interpersonal dimension of church culture is sent up most regularly, as characters wear Stepford smiles, repeat first names as if they were Hail Marys, and hug like, well, it’s the only form of touch they’re allowed. And in the film’s funniest moment, a spontaneous circle forms, arms draped around each other, as the oblong collective sways to the sound of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Admittedly, much of this ribbing feels as fleeting and insubstantial as its critiques, but it’s all held together, even elevated, by a wonderfully comic physicality from Dyer, who contorts her face into endless, silent expressions of bewilderment across the film’s brief runtime. It’s a rare film that manages to transcend its clear aims through performance: so in tune is the actress with the droll spirit of Yes, God, Yes that she is able to muster moments of sublimity from the otherwise familiar.