It may be tempting, in these dumpster fire times, to look back at what seemed to be simpler times. Like the early 2000s. Remember the early 2000s? Before smartphones and social media, when Snake was cutting-edge cell phone technology and AOL was an exciting new thrill?
But as the charming coming-of-age comedy Yes, God, Yes reminds us, some complications are eternal. Sexual awakening has always been an awkward, messy process, and surely always will be.
Set around the turn of the millennium, the new film centers on a teenage girl named Alice (Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things, all wide eyes and zipped lips) who is so sheltered that when a rumor goes around her prim Catholic school that she’s committed a certain sex act, she’s mystified as to what that sex act even is.
For anyone who grew up attending suburban youth groups in the early 2000s, Yes, God, Yes feels like being full-body-transported back to those days.
Nevertheless, Alice is feeling the first stirrings of lust. She’s intrigued, rather than disgusted, when an internet stranger offers cybersex. She watches the Titanic sex scene on repeat while pretending it’s just because she has trouble hearing the dialogue. Sometimes, when she’s home alone, she slips her hand down the front of her skirt.
She’s well aware that it’s all considered wrong, that any sexual activity outside the confines of heterosexual marriage leads to eternal damnation. Besides, she’s a girl, and everyone knows girls are like conventional ovens that need to “preheat” before they’re “switched on.” (Guys, it’s explained in the same lecture, are like microwaves that only need a few seconds. Sexy!) So to get right with God — and with the classmates and teachers who’ve been side-eyeing her since that nasty rumor started spreading — she signs up for a religious retreat led by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) and the most pious, most popular kids in school.
For anyone who grew up attending suburban American youth groups in the early 2000s, Yes, God, Yes feels like being full-body-transported back to those days. I did, and I could practically smell the camp when Alice first pulls up in the school bus. Writer-director Karen Maine based the film on her own adolescence, and it shows in precise but unshowy details like the brand of junk food in Alice’s kitchen or the familiar look of an AOL chat window. But she also recaptures the more nebulous elements of that setting: the wholesome shine of the cutest, coolest, most on-fire-for-Jesus kids in your youth group, or the tryhard energy of a religious authority attempting to connect with teens.
For those who aren’t familiar with that world, Yes, God, Yes welcomes any and all curious viewers with its gentle empathy and a good-natured sense of humor. Maine milks laughs from the clumsiness inherent in sexual self-discovery, but it’s giggling with Alice, not at her, as she expresses confusion over what “tossing a salad” means, fumbles in her attempts to sound sexy online, or ogles the manly forearms of a particularly handsome classmate. (Yes, this is a movie that understands just how distractingly hot a male forearm can be; thank God for the female gaze.)
It even extends that understanding outward to the people around Alice who, she realizes over the course of the retreat, struggle to practice what they preach. Yes, God, Yes pokes at the impossible sexual double standards placed onto Alice and points out the hypocrisy of those enforcing them, but it’s less interested in dousing this lofty world in acid than in bringing it back down to earth.
And though the lessons Alice learns along the way aren’t exactly mind-blowing — most adults watching this movie will have figured them out at some point already — they’re satisfying enough to be revisiting. Sometimes, a trip to a simpler past that wasn’t all that simple to begin with is just what you need to feel a little bit better in a hellish present.
WATCH: What to binge on the best 30-day free trials