by Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Much is made of the texture of movie images, the power of film stock to reflect, in grain and nuances of light and shadow, the medium’s essential physicality. But a much more important form of movie texture is the mental kind—a film’s ability to evoke states of mind, maybe those of the characters, but, above all, those of the film’s creator. That’s what the writer and director Karen Maine does in her remarkable new movie, “Yes, God, Yes”—her first feature—which opens Friday in so-called virtual cinemas throughout the country (including at Brooklyn’s The Future of Film Is Female) and, next Tuesday, on many streaming services. Starting from a premise so familiar—a tale of a teen-ager’s sexual awakening—Maine uses meticulously composed yet freely imaginative visual and sonic textures to develop the film into a vivid, varied comedic drama and an intricate portrayal of inner experience.
Set in the early two-thousands, somewhere in the Midwest, the film is an incisive satire of religious repression. It’s centered on a high-school junior named Alice (Natalia Dyer) who attends a Catholic school where a teacher, Mrs. Veda (Donna Lynne Champlin), patrols the halls to supervise attire, from a boy’s lack of a belt to a girl’s skirt falling more than two and a half inches above the knee, and where a hip, bearded, energetic young priest, Father Murphy (Timothy Simons), teaches a class on “morality,” i.e., sex—and abstinence. From the start, Maine delights—albeit sardonically and ruefully—in the incantatory, flamboyant, and perky rhetoric that Father Murphy (called, by the students, simply “Father”) deploys to (mis)inform and control students on the subject of sex. Masturbation is “outside God’s will” and will lead to “damnation for all eternity,” he explains, reminding them that “God is always watching, capeesh?”
Alice and her best friend, or frenemy, Laura (Francesca Reale), wax ironic about their sex lessons—the partial-birth-abortion video that Alice has had to watch, the baby doll that Laura is forced to schlep around school all day. Yet, in these relentlessly dogmatic inculcations, Maine finds one of her crucially insightful themes. From the start, she sketches rapidly and clearly the specific tensions within Alice’s circle—notably, Laura’s aspirations to in-crowd popularity, marked by her fawning, from a distance, over the school’s queen bee, Nina (Alisha Boe)—and the bitter social consequences of the school’s, and the church’s, deforming teaching about sex, including the inclination of those who absorb such self-hatred to inflict similar torments on others. Laura holds a grudge against Alice for making her sin—for getting her to rewind, twice, to the sex scene in “Titanic.” A false rumor is circulating that Alice, at a recent party, “tossed salad” with a boy named Wade (Parker Wierling), whose girlfriend, Heather (Allison Shrum), is threatening to break up with him as a result. (Alice has never even heard the term, which she obliviously mangles to comedic effect.) What’s more, Laura believes it—as do their classmates and, for that matter, their teachers.
Apart from all misguided rumors, however, Alice is curious; at home, in her basement bedroom, she signs in to an AOL chat room and, pretending to be an adult, elicits erotic conversation with a man who posts sexual images. (Her inexperience shows comedically in her bewildered responses.) Despite Father’s warnings, Alice is determined to masturbate (and only some other comedic contretemps get in the way of her plan). Her sexual curiosity is aroused all the more by another detour, a school-sponsored four-day religious retreat at a nearby camp-like facility. There, one of the group leaders is a tall and confident football star named Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), whose hairy arms remind her of those of the man in the anonymous online video and instantly send her sexual imagination into overdrive. While at the retreat, she takes significant risks (and acts with spontaneously ruthless cunning) to wrench a margin of physical and emotional freedom from the authoritarian program; in doing so, she catches accidental glimpses of other people’s transgressions, which she processes as a revealing new realm of knowledge and leverages as a measure of power.
Maine unfolds the four-day retreat in detail, starting with the lines of tension among the students, the psychological intricacies and practical difficulties of Alice’s crush on Chris. The film’s sharp, colorful dialogue and keenly delineated performances keep the story both precise and unstable, with a varied range of tones, emotions, and experiences. Yet its satirical comedy also lampoons the retreat’s cheerily rigid program—and veers seriously into subtle realms of terrifying vulnerability, the forced performance of self-revelation. The power of confession plays a crucial role in “Yes, God, Yes.” Scenes of Alice’s confession to Father Murphy have a chillingly confrontational pressure, and, alongside the formal sacrament, the retreat presents a wide variety of situations involving compulsory discourse in front of church authorities and classmates—the mandatory bearing of witness to troubles, to failings, to feelings, to lessons learned during the retreat. The effect is double—the subjection of the students to both the official authority of the church and the social pressure of their similarly repressed (and repressive) peers.
Working with the cinematographer Todd Antonio Somodevilla, Maine creates images that are extraordinarily poised and exacting while remaining fluidly spontaneous, telegraphing her own intense, empathetic awareness of Alice’s shifting and clashing states of mind. There are very few handheld shots in the movie; the restrained camerawork reflects states of outward control and also inner turmoil. Maine uses point-of-view shots more trenchantly than any director has since Jordan Peele in “Get Out,” and (working with the editor Jennifer Lee) merges Alice’s action with her perspective on it and on her surroundings into a tense subjective collage. Alice sees the figures of authority surrounding her at school (mostly crucifixes) and hears the voices of authority (mostly Father Murphy’s) along with its iconography, whether the earnest ubiquity of the crucifix or the ironic display of a print of Titian’s “The Fall of Man,” showing a mostly naked Adam and Eve. (She also glances at the charred marshmallow in a s’more, which Nina describes as a mortal sin that they’d burned.) The movie conveys, with a complexity belied by its reserve, Alice’s frenetic sense of being under surveillance, constantly, relentlessly, by her warm and hearty but oblivious parents (Carey Van Driest and Matt Lewis), by school and church authorities, by schoolmates, by a few random yet significant strangers she encounters, by God—and, in her own intensely overheating self-consciousness, by herself.
Dyer’s mercurially nuanced yet unforced performance conveys Alice’s deep-rooted character as well as her practical struggles. Dyer’s Alice gets through life with a natural briskness and an angular precision that’s matched by a sharply etched diction, with its eloquent pauses and sardonic silences—and by furtive glances and distant gazes that evoke yearnings both carnal and intellectual. Alice’s notable absence of awkwardness reflects a quasi-military sense of discipline and determination, which is undermined by a pensive, nervous energy trembling below the surface, and Maine’s images tremble along with her. In Maine’s quietly elaborate audiovisual compositions of fact and fantasy, of action and thought, Alice’s ordinary, orderly life is revealed to have vast novelistic, imaginative, and sensual dimensions.