Male masturbation is commonplace in movies – whether in raunchy comedies like American Pie and Good Boys or dramas like Bad Lieutenant and The Squid and the Whale – but female self-pleasure rarely gets the cinematic treatment. Writer and director Karen Maine (who co-wrote the abortion taboo-shattering movie Obvious Child) seeks to rectify that discrepancy with her feature debut, which she describes as ‘a love story between one woman and her vagina’. Although it could just as accurately be described as the tale of a break-up with the rigidity of dogma.
On the heels of a sexual awakening spurred by a risque conversation in an AOL chatroom and a VHS copy of Titanic (yes, this is an early-aughts period piece), well-meaning 16-year-old Alice (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) decides to attend a retreat organised by her Catholic school in an attempt to atone for her perceived sins. But while Father Murphy (Veep’s Timothy Simons) and the camp’s other counsellors publicly extol the virtues of chastity and purity, Alice discovers that many of these outwardly devout individuals are privately enjoying carnal pleasure like internet pornography and clandestine blow jobs.
Maine’s script confronts this bare-faced hypocrisy with satirical aplomb, making it abundantly clear that the church’s fear-based approach (‘God is always watching,’ warns Father Murphy) to sexual education may elicit guilt, but it doesn’t stop a teenager’s raging hormones. Dyer’s portrayal of Alice plays into her character’s conflicted feelings, presenting her as a somewhat naive young woman who is trying to do what’s expected of her, but who can’t resist the urge to furtively use her clunky cellphone as a makeshift vibrator.
Alice’s often-hilarious journey of self-discovery drives the narrative forward, but even at a breezy 78 minutes, Yes, God, Yes sometimes feels like it’s spinning its wheels. The film gleefully pokes holes in religious sanctimony, but it fails to address the reason those mixed messages about sex can be so harmful to young people.
The most revelatory statement arrives late in the film, when Alice escapes the retreat and finds refuge at a rural dive bar, striking up a conversation with its lesbian owner (Susan Blackwell). It’s the theological equivalent of the scar-comparison scene in Jaws, as Alice and the proprietor laugh at the various sins they once believed they would be sent to hell for (cybersex, the steamy Titanic sex scene, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue). And, like any good moment of release, it puts things in perspective: it’s perfectly normal to feel horny, so why not embrace the feeling and enjoy the ride?
Available to stream in the US now.