Yes, God, Yes is masturbatory in the best possible way. The new comedy (hitting virtual cinemas and drive-ins Friday and VOD Tuesday) stars Stranger Things' Natalia Dyer as Alice, a Catholic teenager who's wracked with guilt and confusion as she begins to discover self-pleasure. The film is a sweet, savvy, and sex-positive coming-of-age story, with many sharply observed moments — a mop handle here, a fascination with a certain Titanic scene there — drawn from writer-director Karen Maine's experience growing up Catholic in the Midwest.
"I initially sought another director to do it, and was meeting with other directors. And then one of them said to me, 'This is your personal project. You should just be directing it,'" says Maine, whose only previous credit was co-writing the hit 2014 abortion-themed indie Obvious Child. "I remember, too, she told me, 'Directors want to find a way to make it their own,' and that filled me with fear. I was like, 'No!' So I sort of knew I needed to take the reins, because I didn't want anyone coming in and f---ing with it."
Personal as the film may be, however, "I wouldn't say [Alice] is me," Maine adds. "I'd say she's going through what I also went through as a teenager, and is a compilation of many different people's experiences, not just my own."
One of those people is Dyer herself, who also grew up in a religious community and was "so on board" with the project immediately, first collaborating with Maine on a short film version that was made to help obtain funding for the feature.
"A lot of the topic was familiar to me, and I thought she was touching on it in such an interesting, perceptive, and totally funny way," Dyer says. "It was really interesting to go from the short and then delve deeper into Alice, and what was going on in her brain, and what was going on around her. While still keeping the humor and the levity, I think the feature got to delve into a more serious, thoughtful part of it as well."
Maine agrees, noting, "Natalia was bringing such vitality and nuance to the character that I didn't even imagine when I was writing her, and so as soon as we collaborated on the short I was like, 'There's no way she's not doing the feature.' Having worked already on the short with the same character, there was that foundation there to really just dive in deep."
Both actress and director describe their collaboration as, well, heavenly, each enthusing about the other over a joint phone call. "Natalia was incredibly kind and patient with me on set," Maine says. "If I couldn't find the words I needed to describe something I was trying to get out of her, she would often fill in the blanks and help me figure it out."
"I think you gave great notes!" Dyer exclaims, adding as Maine laughs, "There wasn't always a whole lot of dialogue to work with, and there was a lot of internal stuff. We would try things in so many different ways, which I think is really satisfying for the actor — not rushing anything, really giving me space to kind of find it. It was a really lovely back and forth relationship."
"I think those are some of the best moments in the film, where you're able to convey something without even saying anything," adds Maine. "There's so many layers to a simple expression that she does."
Maine credits Dyer and the rest of the cast with helping achieve the "naturalistic" tone she was aiming for, while "still having their tongue in their cheek for a little bit."
"I'm not going for the gross-out laugh," she notes. "I wanted it to feel young and inexperienced and sort of fumbling, in a way. Like, when she first tries masturbating, she's been eating Cheetos! And we've all had Cheetos — they're gross, if you think about it. And that's what I liked about it, this teenage sort of acting on impulse and instinct."
And that's part of what makes Yes, God, Yes quietly groundbreaking. Authentic depictions of female sexuality are still all too rare in popular culture, and Maine fervently hopes her film can "help some young girls who see it and realize that what they're doing isn't horrible."
"[Female sexuality] is not something that's readily discussed," the filmmaker says. "And so, it therefore is led to be something for women to discover on their own, often when they're quite young. And there's always a sense of shame around that. I'm just hoping that if the film does reach a younger audience, that they see it and they feel a little less weird or bad about themselves for having very normal feelings."
"One of the things I love so much about this [movie] is that Alice is discovering herself for herself, and it kind of gives permission for that to be OK for women," adds Dyer. "Film, I think, is powerful, screens are powerful. I think they're sort of like a mirror to our culture and society, and I think we look to film to find ourselves. And I think we need more women's stories told by women, because I feel like we've had quite a lot of the male perspective for a while."
A pause. "Print that!" Maine says with a laugh.