Growing up in a sheltered lifestyle is difficult. When everyone around you thinks the same and looks the same, it is hard to realize if you’re not the same. For better or worse, technology has made that bubble-like groupthink rarer, but it still exists and is captured at an amusingly awkward moment, for both characters and pop culture, during Yes, God, Yes. As Karen Maine’s directorial debut, the picture stars Natalia Dyer as Alice, a young woman who (kind of) wishes to conform with her Catholic school’s rigid teachings, but in the early 2000s is getting a crash course in sexual education at a point when “social media” was but a flicker in angry Harvard students’ eyes.
It’s an amusing setup for one of the more memorable dramedies out of SXSW this year. With scenes like Dyer going on AOL Instant Messenger to find out what a “tossed salad” is after high school gossip accuses her of such debauchery, she gets more than she bargained for from strangers demanding photos of her touching herself… an act she’s never really tried before. She also gets to think about what it is to grow up a young woman while attending a Jesus Camp that insists she must stay a passive girl.
“A lot of it actually happened to me,” Maine says when she comes by our SXSW studio. “Obviously I took some creative leaps with the story. I’ve never seen my priest masturbate, thank God. A lot of it was made up to make it more dramatic, but it’s such an interesting way to grow up: as a young girl in a Catholic environment in the Midwest where nobody else is a different religion or even a different race, or has different political views. It’s just very homogenous.”
Maine, who’s had experience telling stories from a uniquely feminine point-of-view in an industry that more regularly would skew toward a male coming-of-age yarn (her previous screenplay was for Spirit Award nominated Obvious Child), pulled from her own life of growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
Says Maine, “The internet was not what it is today… It was more like a hallway without any doors that opened. Or you could just open one or two. You can find out anything.” She adds in relation to Yes, God, Yes, “All of that happened to me. That was my screenname. I got that email about the saucy pics and asked to see more. And then my Dad, because he had access to my AOL account, had to confront me about it. In fairness, he was really sweet and kind about it. He didn’t really shame me, but I was like, ‘This is the most awkward conversation in the world.’ I think I flat out denied it. ‘That wasn’t me!’ It was obviously me.”
It’s a moment echoed in the movie when Dyer goes on AIM again and again to get to the bottom of what what her priest doesn’t want her to know.
“I think it’s always fun to play in [that sort of] world,” Dyer tells us. “Right now we’re in such a technologically special, strange place, and I think the generation below us is in a very interesting position. The access they have, the connectivity. I think it’s nice to remember a time where you didn’t have all that constantly. It was very early stages of communicating on the internet.”
It’s also a chance to return to a different era for Dyer, who has spent so much time in ‘80s on the star-making Stranger Things that it’s a bit of a time-warp to go to the early 2000s. With that said, Dyer knows which decade she’d prefer to be stuck in.
“Oh the ‘80s, I think,” Dyer says with a laugh. “Yeah, the 2000s were terrible! Low-rise jeans are the worst.”
For much of the young cast though, including Dyer, Yes, God, Yes offers a trip back to the not-so-distant past.
“We all spent a lot of time just sitting around talking between takes, talking about things that came up as we were shooting the film,” says Francesca Reale. “We started talking about AIM, we started talking about music we were listening to. I think the three of us went on a little rant about mp3 players at one point. It’s interesting to play a character in that time, because it doesn’t feel so long ago, and I don’t feel so far away from the five-year-old I was in the late ‘90s or 2000s.”
It doesn’t feel so long ago, and yet it also seems like a different universe. One that should be getting closer again since Yes, God, Yes is a delightfully knowing comedy about what it feels like to know nothing, and being surrounded by others who are pretending they’ve got all the answers. With any luck from above, it’ll find distribution soon and a wider audience to the pass that knowledge on to. In the meantime, you can watch our full interviews in the video above.