Growing up Irish Catholic there are a lot of things you don’t talk about. As a pizza-faced pubescent who spent most of his time inside and would rather be reading a book, awkward mutterings were my primary mode of communication. This was especially true one night when I was doing homework and my dad sheepishly knocked on my bedroom door. He asked, apropos of nothing, “You know that you don’t get acne from playing with yourself, right?” I stammered something in the affirmative and he quickly nodded and went back downstairs to watch “M*A*S*H” or something and we have never spoken of this again.
I thought about that little chat a lot during “Yes, God, Yes,” which opens July 24 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. This very funny, semi-autobiographical debut feature from writer-director Karen Maine is about an uptight Catholic schoolgirl trying to make sense of her new downstairs yearnings. There are a lot of bawdy coming-of-age movies but you won’t find many this gentle and sweet. It’s the warmest, fuzziest film I’ve ever seen about masturbating to internet porn.
Set in the early 2000s, the film stars Natalia Dyer (of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”) as Alice, a good girl from a wholesome Iowa family who goes to early Mass on Sundays with her dad and out of nowhere finds herself the subject of a racy lunchroom rumor involving a slang term for a sex act that most of the gossipers don’t even understand. (These were the days before Urban Dictionary, but the kids in Alice’s class who’ve heard Chris Rock’s “Bring the Pain” have an understandably hard time watching her eat chocolate pudding in the cafeteria.)
Naturally, Alice heads home and fires up the old dial-up modem to see if America Online might know something about this unnatural act she was wrongfully accused of committing at a party last weekend. As anyone who remembers those early, wild west days of online chatrooms can tell you, AOL was an absolute cesspool of perverts typing with one hand and our heroine is almost instantly confronted with a barrage of filthy pics. The thing is though, she kinda likes them? She also learns that she likes leaving her cell phone on vibrate.
Being a good Catholic, Alice is automatically overwhelmed with a crushing sense of shame and only feels worse after being taunted by a goody-goody classmate who unhelpfully adds, “making me rewind ‘Titanic’ back to the car scene twice is probably also a sin.” Alice needs to get right with the Lord fast and signs up for her church’s weekend retreat. She has some mixed motives here though, seeing the trip not just as an opportunity to atone for her sins but also to spend some quality time with the school’s devout upperclassman hunk (Wolfgang Novogratz) who looks like a young Superman in a pooka-shell necklace. His hirsute arms are quite hilariously the object of both Alice and the camera’s lingering gazes.
“Yes, God, Yes” isn’t exactly full of surprises in the story department, as it doesn’t take long for Alice to discover that the most holier-than-thou members of her church community all have their own dirty little secrets as well. What’s unexpected is the movie’s relaxed, conciliatory tone. It doesn’t chide these characters for their hypocrisy so much as it gives them knowing nudges. In synopsis, an indie sex comedy about Iowa churchgoers probably sounds like the smarmiest movie imaginable, but Maine has no interest in scoring points off her subjects.
Example: The priest in charge of the retreat is played by Timothy Simons, who on HBO’s “Veep” unforgettably portrayed one of the foulest, most vulgar characters in modern television. It’s a nifty typecasting trick to see him here as a generally decent guy who isn’t above his own after-hours AOL adventures. One of the film’s most telling images is a shot of a nun on her lunch break, voraciously reading a John Grisham paperback. It’s not just a callback to the lousy mass-market literature of the era, but a reminder that in their downtime authority figures are ordinary people, too.
Expanded from a short film Maine made in 2017, “Yes, God, Yes” clocks in at a quick 78 minutes and the compositions have a clean efficiency. Things probably could’ve been a little bit more crowded or complicated, and I really could have done without a scene in which Alice explains the moral of the movie at a class assembly to a lot of shocked reaction shots. (It’s one of those hackneyed devices I wish would be retired from screenwriting manuals.) I suppose one could accuse the film of downplaying the darker sides of religious oppression, and maybe the movie might be a little too nice for its own good.
But that aura of upbeat, slightly-naughty positivity is what makes “Yes, God, Yes” feel unique. We’ve seen so many angsty, overwrought films about sex and adolescence, it’s refreshing to find one that understands how sometimes curling up on the couch with the car scene from “Titanic” is the happiest, healthiest way to spend an afternoon.
“Yes, God, Yes” starts streaming Friday, July 24 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. Writer-director Karen Maine will be hosting a livestreamed Q&A on Tuesday, July 28 at 8 p.m.