Have you ever had this feeling? A film has such a good heart and a lot of festival buzz, then it finally comes to streaming or cinemas in your country and you see it and it’s just, so disappointingly fine, verging on sub-par. It’s a horrible feeling and I had it with Yes, God, Yes, the latest South by Southwest breakout film with a progressive and hip edge to just fall into too many indie-comedy-coming-of-age-drama clichés to really work as a story. In part it’s probably because I’m a career writer and filmmaker outside of film journalism, but I’ll get onto that.
Yes, God, Yes was a film I was super excited to watch based on what looked like a really up to the minute and down to earth, kind of hip and edgy premise, about shame in the Catholic School system around masturbation. If you haven’t been living under a rock you’ll have met someone who was raised Catholic or went to Catholic school and was taught the most absurd things about sexuality. Yes, there’s the whole hell and damnation thing but the ridiculous biology they teach that only reinforce traditional gender binaries, but also just the most ridiculous biology told in the most anodyne, condescending ways, and the absolute lack of awareness of teenage or even adult sex because they just assume it doesn’t happen. If you’re turned on that’s a sin so of course you’re not turned on, as a teenager, of course. One particular example is the idea that men get turned on like microwaves and women get turned on like, I don’t know a fucking AGA or something. Men get turned on in seconds but women need more foreplay, (a one way street that will lead to awful sex). That’s what made me really interested to see this, that thematic idea. It was all I knew about the movie and it sounded really promising, that’s as far as I went, I’m that kind of chooser of what movies to watch. Unfortunately it feels like that’s as far as the filmmakers went as well and that’s so infinitely disappointing.
Okay so positives first. I am totally behind the thesis of this film about sexual openness and being secure in yourself. I think some benign religious viewers might feel a bit attacked just for the religion they happen to have been bought up in or found for entirely valid reasons at any point in their life, the film does paint quite broad strokes and kind of paint all religions and all Catholics by the same brush when it comes to this stuff, but broadly, I agree that we should not feel ashamed for our sexual impulses and sex-ed needs to be better amongst all schooling but more so amongst religiously inclined schooling. Incidentally, one of the ways it diminishes all Christians in a way is that several people get punished just for being part of a system they’ve been born and raised in, and the world is allowed to enact malice upon them without any sympathy for the way their own personal struggles probably mirror our main character’s in ways that would make the film so much more rich if they had been explored. Christians in general are treated as a joke by this movie and well, take that how you will. Anyway, I’ve somewhat gotten away from strict positives. Natalia Dyer is a fine lead and her chemistry with Francesca Reale is palpable and fun. The film is well intentioned and well observed. It depicts female sexuality in a fresh if simplistic way where you can tell this wasn’t made by a man. Yes, God, Yes also occasionally captured a charm to the banality of life, especially life in the 90s, that the rest of the film kind of aimlessly flails at.
Aimless is a keyword there because it is somewhat the core problem with this whole endeavour of a movie. I recently discovered this movie is based on a short film and boy does it show. It plays like a loose collection of contained scenes without any real overarching narrative, which is fine in and of itself but without the necessary spark to make that form work, but then the film does try to overlay a narrative and it’s just so, to put it topically, flaccid. Being a writer you can be hyper aware of writing conventions in some ways. This does have its drawbacks in that you see the framework of a story laid out before you, but that’s not necessarily the bad thing that it appears to be. Firstly, it teaches you a lot about writing just by watching movies that way, secondly, when a movie is just beautifully constructed like Knives Out it makes it a joy to watch even when you can see that construction, and thirdly, it means when a movie really doesn’t play by those constructions it’s a fascinating experience, (this made a recent discovery of Taste of Cherry all the more electrifying). This movie is like neither of those examples. I can learn about writing from watching Yes, God, Yes, I suppose, in that I can see the titanic machinations of plot lumbering like elephants into arrangement to allow narrative confluence. I can see the conflict being manufactured in front of me, but not like an open oven restaurant when you can see a maestro chef at work, but like someone’s just gotten a month old lasagna out the freezer and shoved it in a microwave telling you it’s the best thing you’ll ever eat and breaks all the rules of cooking. Now, admittedly, Knives Out & Taste of Cherry aren’t films that this film is necessarily trying to be, so let’s take a movie that this film is clearly in awe of, Desiree Akhavan’s masterpiece that is The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This movie takes the same structure, that being that due to a sexually related interpreted malfeasance our lead is sent off to a remote religious camp for some kind of conversion. Whereas with The Miseducation of Cameron Post it was all about explicit queerness and the explicit erasure of queerness, here our heroine is seen to have committed a sexual transgression that she hasn’t and it is merely suggested that she go to this retreat because “she’d get a lot of out of it”, (read, become chaste). That’s another thing actually, this movie really wants to be Easy A. Now, I haven’t seen the original short film, but I’m guessing neither of these plot lines were in it because God do they feel manipulative, contrived, and cheap. This movie even features a run-away-from-camp-with-queers moment, but whereas in The Miseducation of Cameron Post that was a real liberating moment, here it feels like a generic plot beat to drive us towards the conflict. In that way, whether or not The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows a conventional plot structure, it doesn’t feel like it does. It feels revolutionary and freeform and deliriously open ended. This uses so many of the same beats with none of the deft touch.
This is all such a shame, because the movie promises so much, but even when you start the movie and see the runtime of 72 minutes, it doesn’t even fill those 72 minutes with enough interesting stuff to keep you engaged. The heteros deserve better movies about embracing sexual freedom, I mean, God, they have enough as it is, why do we need this? The straights could have done with a much better version of this, that’s for sure.