Iowa native director’s debut film, “YES, GOD, YES,” hits the sweet spot

“YES, GOD, YES” stars Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) as Alice, a 16-year-old high school student who discovers her sexuality while on a religious retreat.

Gabby Lucas

The “coming-of-age” trope is, more often than not, quite simple and conventional: The protagonist, usually a teenager, feels like nobody understands them. They get into a screaming match with a parent or a best friend, eventually learn the error of their irresponsible ways and undergo a personal, moral arc that marks their transition into a well-rounded adult. Scene. The end.

The truth of the matter is while most coming-of-age movies are intended to create relatable nostalgia for a wide array of viewers, reality can be far stranger than fiction. For Iowa native screenwriter Karen Maine, her personal coming-of-age story hits home for the niche of ex-private school kids riddled with good-old-fashioned religious guilt. 

“YES, GOD, YES,” the title itself acting as an innuendo, is Maine’s debut feature film, which is based off of her short film of the same name. The film premiered at South by Southwest in 2019 and won the special jury prize for Best Ensemble. 

The quick-witted, feel-good comedy film follows 16-year-old Alice, portrayed by “Stranger Things” star Natalia Dyer, day in and day out of her private, Catholic high school in early-2000s Iowa. After an unsupervised AOL chat turns from innocent to racy, Alice joins several of her classmates on a religious retreat to repent for discovering masturbation.

“Kirkos,” the retreat Alice attends in the film, is based on a real retreat Maine went through in high school called “Kairos.” Many religious schools offer the Kairos retreat worldwide. On the four-day retreat, students are prohibited from using their phones or even knowing the time and are instead encouraged to put all their focus toward becoming holier. 

Students are largely prohibited from discussing the retreat outside of designated meetings, therefore creating an element of mystery to those unfamiliar. In spite of this, the film depicts many common elements of the retreat, unshrouding it from the world.

“It’s a really widespread thing,” Maine said, looking back at her own time on the retreat. “Obviously the internet exists now in a way it didn’t when I went, but it’s all secretive and stuff. Exposing it sounded fun.”

Rather than receiving the righteous religious experience she was looking for, Alice, who Maine said is a partial extension of herself, runs into plenty of “sinful” temptations while on chaotic Kirkos — including being hit on, experiencing arousal and even uncovering the sins of those on the retreat with her. 

Instead of the “repentant” moment most protagonists usually endure during their coming-of-age character arcs, Alice does quite the opposite — she realizes she isn’t alone.

Ultimately, rather than succumbing to her Catholic guilt, Alice learns to embrace her urges.

“I wanted to add another element to it, which is discovering your sexuality, which is something, especially as a young woman, you may feel very guilty about inside or outside of a religious community,” Maine said. “The experiences Alice goes through in the film, almost 80 percent of them happened to me.”

As is to be expected with any film that contains religious elements, Maine received backlash from the communities involving her hometown and high school. Much like with the retreat itself, Maine found entertainment in the negativity.

“I had some weird experiences in Des Moines as a high school student, and I get a little bit of joy out of people, in Des Moines particularly, getting upset about this film — especially since they haven’t seen it,” Maine said. “I think one could go full tilt and really condemn the Catholic Church, but I really tried not to do that.” 

Maine said her goal with “YES, GOD, YES” was to focus more on humanity and the direct effects a religious upbringing can have on a naturally-curious teenager.

“I just hope young women see and recognize something about themselves in it that allows them to feel less guilty or awkward or shameful about feeling sexual or having sexual experiences or just wanting to explore their body,” Maine said. “I think what’s really interesting about even the way probably public schools teach sex ed is it’s mostly focused on reproduction, which doesn’t involve female pleasure at all.”

“YES, GOD, YES” is hitting select drive-ins and virtual cinemas July 24 and will be available digitally and on-demand July 28.