John DoughertyJuly 31, 2020
Francesca Reale and Natalia Dyer star in a scene from the movie "Yes, God, Yes." (CNS photo/Vertical Entertainment)

Being a teenager is miserable. This is true for everyone, but I think Catholics have it particularly tough. We take the angst, awkwardness and self-consciousness that everyone feels in adolescence and combine it with Catholic Guilt, that unshakeable sense that no matter what you do, you are letting God down. At a time when you already feel like you’re doing everything wrong, you also become aware of eternal damnation.

As a young Catholic, puberty felt like a minefield where one wrong sexually-charged step—any step, it seemed—could have everlasting consequences. As a high school campus minister, I now see my own students wrestling with similar scruples and how that can sometimes get in the way of them saying “yes” to God.

In the new film “Yes, God, Yes,” (available to rent via streaming on Apple TV, Amazon and other services), this intersection of teen angst and religious terror forms the basis of a gentle indie comedy. The film follows Alice (Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things”), a mild-mannered student at an Iowa Catholic high school in the early 2000s who is experiencing a private, hesitant sexual awakening. When she becomes the subject of a scandalous rumor, she seeks social and spiritual redemption by signing up for a school retreat, led by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons of “Veep”). The experience ends up being informative and enlightening, though likely not in the ways that the retreat’s leaders intended. 

Despite the suggestive title, “Yes, God, Yes” is an innocent and naturalistic spin on the teen sex comedy

Despite the suggestive title, “Yes, God, Yes” is an innocent and naturalistic spin on the teen sex comedy (its R rating is, frankly, a little ridiculous). The writer-director Karen Maine is an ex-Catholic, and she certainly has some satirical goals. But the satire is gentle, and the film’s message, that we should be kinder to ourselves and one another, is thoroughly wholesome.

Drawing from her own experiences of Catholic high school, Maine (who co-wrote the 2014 indie darling “Obvious Child,” a film about a standup comic who plans to abort an unplanned pregnancy) perfectly captures teenagers’ mix of sexual naïvete and yearning, their simultaneous fascination with sex as a concept and childish revulsion at the particulars. This is the rare film where the teens seem like teens, not small adults.

[Read: The 10 Greatest Catholic School Movies of All Time]

Adapted from Maine’s 2017 short film of the same name (also starring Dyer), the film does, nevertheless, feel a bit slight. It features a talented ensemble of young actors (who received a Special Jury Recognition when the film debuted at SXSW last year), but most of their characters are underwritten. Indeed, only Alice is given a full character arc, with several other storylines left unresolved. This weakens the film’s message about accepting other people’s imperfections, because we rarely get beneath the surface of the secondary characters.

Maine’s direction, on the other hand, is intimate and articulate throughout, and Dyer’s performance carries the film through its weak moments. Operating in a different vein from the acerbic Nancy in “Stranger Things,” Dyer imbues Alice with vulnerability, humor and intelligence.

One of the film’s greatest pleasures for me is how perfectly Maine reproduces the world of a high school retreat. Most of the film takes place on “Kirkos,” a very lightly fictionalized version of Kairos, a four-day retreat popular at American Catholic high schools. Throughout the film, I laughed and occasionally cringed at painfully familiar moments: the earnest and overwhelmingly enthusiastic student leaders, the worship lyric sheets, the tearful witness talks, the temptation to exaggerate or invent personal trauma so that you have something to share in your small group.

I felt personally attacked by Father Murphy’s rolled-up sweatshirt sleeves, the uniform of many a “cool” campus minister. When Alice first arrives, one of the senior leaders collects her watch and informs her, in the tradition of Kairos leaders across history: “You’re on Jesus’ time!” (Like many real teens, Alice avoids turning in her phone, a moment that is sure to be triggering for the campus ministers in the audience.) 

For those working in youth ministry, “Yes, God, Yes” could serve as a cautionary tale.

At the same time, the film is less interested in skewering the retreat or Catholicism than it is with the hypocrisy of religious authorities. (Ironically, this puts the film in continuity with the Gospels.) Throughout the film, Alice realizes that several people who have claimed moral authority—including cool senior leader Nina (Alisha Boe of “13 Reasons Why”) and Father Murphy himself—are also deeply fallible and hold themselves to a less rigorous standard. This hypocrisy undermines the authority of leaders and drives people, like Alice, away from the faith; the film does not touch directly on clerical sexual abuse, but it lurks in the subtext. 

For those of us working in youth ministry, “Yes, God, Yes” could serve as a cautionary tale. We should approach young people with care and the humility to listen to their questions while authentically sharing, and modeling, Catholic teaching. Our goal should always be to help them say “yes” to God, not to command blind obedience.

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