I found Yes God Yes, a raunchy but sincere little indie comedy from writer-director Karen Maine (Obvious Child), streaming on Kanopy, and it was just the kind of mildly amusing distraction I needed to take my mind off of this grueling week of election results.

Yes God Yes follows the angst-addled journey of Alice (Natalia “Stranger Things” Dyer), a young Catholic high school student, from her first awkward and unexpected sexual awakening (during an encounter with internet porn) into a labyrinth of temptations, fantasies, fraught relationships, obscene rumors, humiliations, and — worst of all — righteous reprimands from condescending Christian adults. Unfortunately for moviegoers, once Alice is all hot and bothered by her impulses and her typical teenage relationship issues, it’s easy to predict what she’ll discover along the way that she can play as her trump card in the final showdown with her tormentor. Worse, it arrives in time at a disappointingly preachy little conclusion, one that feels far too simplistic for the questions raised by the film.

But I’ll leave the details for you to discover.

That singular sweatshirt-y look of Jesus Camp counselors — here comes trouble in Yes God Yes.

Like Brian Dannelly’s Saved! — a much, much funnier comedy similarly set in a Christian high school context of teenage hormones and horrors — Yes God Yes settles for taking very, very easy shots at private Christian schools and Jesus camps. I’m not saying either film is inaccurate in their jabs; I’m all too familiar with the ways in which Christian teens learn to lace their boasts and their cruelty with churchgoer vocabulary — I used to be a pro at that very thing. And I recognize these scenes as fun-house-mirror reflections of the world I grew up in from first grade through high school. But I can’t quite tell, due to the film’s fierce focus on religious legalism, if Maine has a personal axe to grind with Christians, or if this portrayal of Christian community is based solely on other media exaggerations, two steps removed from the real thing. It all feels a little too easy, like shooting Jesus-fish in a barrel. 

Still, there are moments along the way when the movie warms with wisdom — wisdom that (like the wisdom in Saved!) could have been found in almost any other context of adolescence. It’s not as much about cultural Catholicism as it thinks it is. This is a movie that I think most teens would find very “relatable” (to use a word very much in vogue with young adults). After all, who hasn’t struggled through adolescence with problems of peer pressure and hormones? Who hasn’t had to deal with condescending adults who turn out to be either ignorant, hypocritical, or both? On some level, Yes God Yes is also about the ways in which small communities, responding to fears about things they don’t understand, establish dehumanizing methods of control. Change the context, change the culture, change the vocabulary, and you get almost the same movie.

Fortunately, Yes God Yes doesn’t throw the Baby Jesus out with the Bathwater of Hypocrisy. I kept expecting an all-out condemnation of religion. But instead, Alice, like the protagonist of <i>Saved!</i>, discovers a meaningful distinction between the behaviors of “believers” in her evangelical bubble and the actual teachings of Jesus. But, then again, the movie isn’t brave enough to take faith very seriously either, reducing Jesus (like Saved! does) to just another Nice Guy who recommends we all, I don’t know… respect each other and stuff.

Francesca Reale and Natalia Dyer in Yes God Yes.

Oh well.

For what it’s worth, while I cringe and laugh and nod at so many embarrassing evangelical-culture idiosyncrasies in this film, I’m left looking in vain for any awareness that earnest and rewarding explorations of faith also take place in these contexts. I experienced as much of the latter as the former during my K–12 Christian school journey in the ’80s.

Sure, there was plenty of the cheap evangelical lingo I recognize in this film being thrown around those hallways. We had our “testimony” times in which high emotion was a sort of currency, a mark of authenticity. I felt the pressure to manufacture dramatic stories of sin and salvation to earn my Christian credibility points, just as Alice does here. Perhaps the film’s most startlingly realistic flourish comes when the Jesus campers form a circle and their pastor introduces them to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” asking them to imagine that the eyes belong to God. Ouch, that hits a bit too close to home!

Christian community group photo! See if you can spot which student is suffering false accusations from Jesus-loving classmates of having engaged in a scandalous sex act.

And yes, I remember it all too well: My classmates and I suffered the typical bewilderment of hormones, first dates, first kisses, rumors, gossip, and struggles to keep up with the “urban dictionary” of sex. Like Alice, I suffered through plenty of maddeningly uncomfortable situations in which adults who were anxious and uncertain about sexuality tried wrestling the forces of eros down into some hilariously clinical and pragmatic ceremony. While we were never told that an indiscretion would “send us to hell for all eternity” — I think that’s the film’s most laughable exaggeration here — we were certainly conditioned to expect nothing less than lifelong shame if we gave into our impulses before marriage.

Scared out of my wits by what I was feeling, I remember seeking out the counsel of a Baptist minister (my first girlfriend’s father, actually), to ask for guidance on restraining sexual impulses. He looked at me gruffly and ended the conversation abruptly: “Adolescence. I survived it. You’ll survive it. Everybody does.” And that was that.

By the grace of God, the fraught territory of what the film calls “figuring out our shit” eventually became little more than amusing footnotes in a personal history, one with far more meaningful narratives playing out. The meaningful relationships I found among Christian school classmates and my extraordinary teachers deepened, and many continue for me more than 30 years later. Those friendships were forged in experiences of epiphany, belief, and wonder that planted the seeds for a fearless faith — the kind powerfully recommended by, you know, the actual Bible.

The things you might see if you stray from the straight and narrow and find out you’re not the only one wandering!

And speaking of The Bible, the greatest gift that my Christian high school teachers gave me was unconventionally thoughtful and sophisticated training in what the Bible is and how to read it. You won’t see any curiosity in this film about such matters. But while so many professing Christians misguidedly treat the Christian Scriptures as some kind of Textbook or Law from which they can cherry-pick convenient verses that enable them to judge and control people who discomfort them — a practice Jesus strictly forbids — I was taught to read the Bible with close attention to context, to the genre of each passage, to the spirit of the teaching instead of the letter of the law. And so, the Bible remains for me a glorious revelation of storytelling, history, eyewitness testimony, letters, psychedelic visions, and poetry (erotic and otherwise). It’s a collection of texts so deeply and artfully assembled around its primary revelation — the life and teachings of Jesus — that I rarely ever open it without being blessed. I got that from a private Christian school. And I’m so grateful for it.

It’d be interesting to see a movie that doesn’t assume we have to escape religion in order to find meaningful lives — or even meaningful sex lives. Yes God Yes, like so many films that dismiss Christianity as a culture for shallow and suffering hypocrites, suggests that the enlightened will eventually escape religiosity into into the relief of worldly freedoms (represented by a lesbian motorcyclist with war stories about Catholicism, of course). By my lights, Alice is just letting her conscience be her guide in escaping a distortion of Christian community and arriving at something closer to true Christian freedom. I can hear one of my more legalistic teachers now: “What would Jesus think if he found you watching this movie?” And I know how I would answer her: I think Jesus would laugh in loving recognition at the ways human beings find their way, fumbling — as Sarah McLachlan would say — towards ecstasy.