Between Lady Bird, Pen15, and now Yes, God, Yes, we’ve officially reached the point where nostalgic coming-of-age media is nostalgic for the time period where I came of age: the early 2000s. I’ve spent my life watching movies and TV shows that were nostalgic for a time before I was born, learning how to decode signifiers of the 70s and 80s and translate them to my own experience of remembering what it was like to grow up; now, filmmakers have started to trade Madonna for Christina Aguilera and New Coke for Dunkaroos, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I can’t say I particularly miss being in middle and high school, back before I knew who I was — or, more precisely, back before I admitted to myself that I knew full well who I was. It’s not a time I particularly enjoy thinking about. But, sure, for the length of a film or a TV episode, yes, it is fun to see filmmakers try to evoke a sense of a time I once knew well.
Yes, God, Yes does this particularly well, focusing as it does on the early days of widespread Internet as a portal to self-discovery. The film tells the story of Alice (Natalia Dyer, Stranger Things), a young Catholic schoolgirl who has never had a reason to question the religious dogma she’s learning at school and at home. She’s rather sheltered, the kind of person who laughs just to fit in when her friends discuss sexual things she doesn’t understand around the lunch table, dutifully paying attention in class when Father Murphy (Timothy Simons, VEEP) lectures that, “Guys are like microwave ovens and ladies are like conventional ovens. Guys only need a few seconds, like a microwave, to get switched on, while ladies, they typically need to… preheat for a while.”
That afternoon, when she gets home from school, Alice logs on to an AOL chat room where she enjoys playing a word-scramble game with strangers, as one did in the early 00s. Someone named HairyChest1956 sends her an instant message, and before she knows it, she finds herself having cybersex and touching herself for the first time.
Around the same time, a rumor spreads at school that Alice snuck off at a party with a boy and “tossed his salad.” She denies it, but it’s too late; soon the whole school, even the faculty, thinks she’s sexually active. As penance, she signs up for a school-sponsored retreat to learn how to get closer to God and control her newfound urges. Over the four days of the retreat, she flirts with handsome older counselor Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz, The Half of It), discovers the pleasures of her cell phone vibration, and starts to learn that maybe she doesn’t have to be as ashamed of her body as she used to be.
From the film’s title, trailer, and description, I expected Yes, God, Yes to be more of a sex comedy than it is, more along the lines of the Pen15 episode that touched on a similar topic. It’s not really about Alice struggling to control her newfound love of masturbation; instead, it winds up being a really sweet exploration of the intersection between sexuality and religion. It’s about those all-important moments when you learn as a kid that everyone around you has a complicated inner life, their own complex relationship to sexuality, and that they may in fact be hypocrites, even though they’re older and supposedly wiser than you.
One thing the film does have in common with the Pen15 episode about masturbation is a recognition of those hormone-soaked days when an unexpected glimpse of part of someone else’s body could be just as thrilling as a pornographic image online. In Pen15, Maya finds herself driven to uncontrollable horniness as she looks around the classroom and fixates on her classmates’ ears, elbows, and knees; in Yes, God, Yes, Alice finds herself unable to stop fantasizing about running her fingers through Chris’ copious arm hair. (I have so many questions about the prosthetic arm hair he wears; while it seems to be a sight-gag during the fantasy sequence, his arm hair remains comically long throughout the whole film!)
The film is based on a short from a couple of years ago, which includes a brief suggestion that Alice might be bisexual — she stares at her female classmates’ breasts in the hallway as much as she looks at her male classmates in gym shorts. There’s not really any such suggestion in the feature-length film, but the character does have a brief run-in with a lesbian named Gina (Broadway’s Susan Blackwell) who imparts some crucial wisdom at an important point in Alice’s development. It’s a lovely scene overall, offering an example of a life that doesn’t live entirely under the repressive, hypocritical attitude towards sexuality of the Church, but it does veer into Magical Queer territory a bit.
Yes, God, Yes shows that Natalia Dyer has considerably more range than she gets to show off on Stranger Things, playing a much softer character than the more badass Nancy Wheeler. For much of Yes, God, Yes, Dyer is reacting to the people around her rather than driving the action herself, and she’s incredibly sympathetic at it. The supporting cast is great, too; in addition to those mentioned above, Donna Lynne Champlin (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and Alicia Boe (13 Reasons Why) offer particularly memorable supporting turns.
I think what I like best about Yes, God, Yes — and about media trying to recapture that pre-social-media Internet era in general — is recalling the way our experience still preserved some amount of the pleasure of anticipation. We can now log on to any number of websites and see photos of anything we want instantly, but I laughed in recognition at the way Alice watches an image load, one row of pixels at a time, and then jumps in shock when she gets to a boob and realizes it’s porn.
When Alice initially logs into AOL and scrolls through the list of chat rooms to find her Word Scramble game, she scrolls past the Gay/Lesbian Chat room. I remember seeing that, too, when I was younger; I wasn’t a brave enough kid to actually click on it for quite a long time. But to know that there were people out there on the Internet who weren’t ashamed of their sexuality, who were out there waiting for me to catch up, was its own kind of thrilling enough. That’s not often part of the function of nostalgia, is it — we often think of nostalgia as a kind of bittersweet longing for a time we can’t recapture. But what if we don’t want to? Here, the memories dredged up by Yes, God, Yes instead made me grateful for how far I’ve come.
By Eric Langberg