You don’t have to be Catholic, lapsed or otherwise, to be amused by “Yes, God, Yes,” writer-director Karen Maine’s semi-autobiographical account of a Catholic high school girl’s coming-of-age experiences with self-discovery and self-gratification. On the other hand, the gentle shocks of recognition afforded by this engaging indie comedy likely will be all the more enjoyable (when they aren’t mildly discomforting) for anyone, male or female, who remembers having to confess impure thoughts to an inquisitive priest, or fearing the consequences of actions so forcefully proscribed by nuns and lay teachers during religion (and, sometimes, biology) classes.
The movie received a special jury prize for best ensemble after its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. But there can be no dispute that Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”) is first among equals here as Alice, a 16-year-old virgin who has already experienced her first stirrings of sexual turn-on after watching — repeatedly — Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet steam up the windows of an automobile below deck on a VHS copy of “Titanic.”
After that, it’s only a matter of time before Satan’s minions — well, OK, a couple cruising for a threesome in a dial-up AOL chat room that Alice inadvertently enters — coax her into her first exploration of masturbation. (VHS tapes? Dial-up AOL chat rooms? That’s right: The precise year is never announced, but these artifacts, along with pop tunes on the soundtrack, suggest a time period somewhere between the late 1990s and the early 2000s.)
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Dyer — who also made an impact at SXSW five years ago with her remarkably nuanced performance in Leah Meyerhoff’s “I Believe in Unicorns” — is exceptionally adept at persuasively portraying Alice as simultaneously ingenuous and inquisitive, easily embarrassed but obviously intelligent, while she grapples with both an awareness of her sexuality and the aftermath of a nasty rumor spread by an obviously insecure classmate. (Don’t worry: He eventually gets what’s coming to him.)
Wade (Parker Wierling), the elusive object of her unfulfilled desire, claims she “tossed his salad” during a recent party. She didn’t, of course. In fact, she doesn’t even know what that expression means, despite her eager and repeated efforts to find out. One thing leads to another, Catholic guilt clouds what might (or might not) be her better judgment, and eventually Alice joins several of her classmates at a religious retreat where they’re supposed to bond — in a purely platonic fashion, under the watchful eyes of earnest clergy and student laity — in a stronger allegiance to Jesus.
Much of what follows is predictable — rest assured, the aggressively ingratiating Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) doesn’t always practice what he preaches about avoiding temptation, and at least two of the student advisers are unable to resist sins of the flesh — but an appreciable amount manages to pleasantly surprise.
Maine evinces a welcome generosity of spirit as she reveals at least one deeply religious young man, for all his over-the-top sincerity, deserves at least grudging respect for being a true believer. And while it initially plays like a goofy sight gag to see an elderly nun avidly perusing a John Grisham potboiler, it can just as easily be read as Maine’s way of gently reminding us that, hey, you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
“Yes, God, Yes” is bound to rankle some conservative Christians of every denomination, many of whom will point to a scene in which Alice receives words of wisdom from the owner of a lesbian bar (a show-stopping cameo by Susan Blackwell) as a clear sign of Maine’s, ahem, agenda. But Dyer’s Alice generates too much rooting interest, and the movie as a whole is too nondenominationally likable, for most other viewers to cast any stones.