For her feature directorial debut, “Obvious Child” co-writer Karen Maine tells a story about a high school student (Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things”) as she attends a Catholic retreat put on by her school, one that includes a mixture of trauma, faith, and abstinence. “Yes, God, Yes” is based on Maine’s previous 2017 short film of the same name; it premiered at South by Southwest in March 2019.
Maine’s film hits most of the same beats you’ve seen in other Catholic high school comedies, as rumors, sexual tension, and sexual awakenings encircle Dyer’s main character Alice, who is strongly based on Maine. More than just semi-autobiographical, the film watches Alice discover masturbation, Catholic hypocrisy, and the notion that everyone has a secret to hide. “Yes, God, Yes” has all of the trappings of a raunchy comedy without much bite, instead opting to square its lens on the everyday thoughts ingrained within young Catholics.
Her personal connection to the subject matter shines with a measure of heart, softness, and sentimentality. The film grows on you, as Alice pushes against her upbringing with the assistance of a drink and a local helping hand. Maine’s debut runs at a snappy 78 minutes as well, giving ample time to sit with your own childhood and ideology once the credits roll.
Maine chatted with RogerEbert.com about her high school experience, Catholic cinema, and the catharsis of her first feature film.
I’ve read that the film is somewhat autobiographical. How does it feel to put so much of yourself out into the world? Especially as your first feature.
Yeah, I honestly don’t have any issues. It’s such a weird part of my life. You know, Alice, the character, she goes through these experiences that I probably experienced 80% of what she does in the film like verbatim, but I think the character of Alice is really her own person and is not a carbon copy of me. She has fragments with me, but I think, having worked with Natalia on the short and being able to see what she brings to the character and her sensibilities, I was able to sort of write a little bit more towards her for the future. So I, for that reason, I don’t feel that weird about it. I mean, I’m also not easily embarrassed. And also my family’s not really in it. Like there’s a mom and a dad, but they’re not huge components of the film. It’s very much just about Alice. Yeah, so it wasn’t like an “Almost Famous” thing, so not as quite as autobiographical as Mr. Crowe’s movie.
But the worst thing that’s happened is, which isn’t even bad, it’s not bad at all, but it’s based on the high school I went to in Iowa. And, you know, she doesn’t go to the same high school in the film, but that’s where I went. And obviously, it’s based on my experiences, and the emblem on their shirts is very similar to the emblem at my high school. So a lot of current students at that high school saw the trailer and I got a lot of nasty Instagram messages from teenagers. It’s just funny to see people out there, they care so much about something without even actually seeing the film. They just assume that it’s bad, and making fun of Catholicism. I hope that people don’t take that away from it.
Can you explain a little bit of how that was? Growing up going to rural Catholic school and thinking about these ideas, like the idea of which decisions will send you to hell that we see in the film?
Everyone’s [experience] is unique to their school but my school is very strange. We had a teacher who was a deacon who on Friday afternoon in class. He taught morality, he must have taught other things, but I just remember he taught morality sophomore year to me. And on Friday afternoons, he would go up and down the rows of desks with a framed picture of Jesus, close up on his face with a crown of thorns, and just a river of blood dripping down his face. He’d say, “Don’t forget this weekend in case you’re tempted to drink or do drugs or if you do anything bad.” And he would take the film “Jesus of Nazareth” and dub Vanessa Williams “Love Breaks Your Heart” to the carrying of the cross. It’s just really, really in your face. Like Pam Stenzel came and gave an assembly for the school.
I know that name. Yeah.
Yeah, she’s f**king insane. And it worked on me. I was a junior and I was like, “Oh my god, sex. Like, it’s deadly.” And I mean I definitely lost my virginity like six months later but yeah there’s no sex education other than that, we watched a partial birth abortion video which was horrifying. You saw the graphic side of STDs but we had no education on condom use. A friend of mine from public school had to show me how to use a condom using the stick shift in her car. But I don’t think my parents really knew the extent of harm that the school was doing.
So then was making this film more of a cathartic experience?
Totally. And sometimes it wasn’t. There aren’t too many school scenes. It was mostly set on this retreat that my school put on. Yeah. It was really strange, in my opinion, a brainwashing type of retreat, where they don’t really let you talk and they coax you into revealing traumas or hardships in your life. Then you still can’t connect with anyone and so they connect you with Jesus when you’re dying to have some kind of connection. And I find that all really messed up. So yes, it was cathartic, but shooting it, we recreated it so well that it kind of freaked me out. Oh, yeah. Oh my god, I was back here. I kind of had PTSD for a little bit.
Did it bring up all those memories?
Those memories just came flooding back, not just the feelings around them and how I felt back then. And I just sort of felt sorry for myself. And I guess, you know, I hope that someone who’s experiencing that sees the film and is like, “Oh, you know, maybe it’s not so bad. Or maybe there’s another world out there.” I mean, it’s easier to connect with like-minded individuals these days, because of the Internet, but back then, I felt very much alone and unsure and those feelings came back and I was here.
I saw that shooting the film was a really quick experience. Are there one or two stories from shooting that you think encapsulate the experience of being on set?
Yeah, I mean, something that I remember that was really funny is that we were shooting on an actual Christian retreat center in Georgia. And we had just filmed the scene where Natalia and Wolfgang make out, and then he gets a boner. And there was a group of senior citizens at the retreat in this big room with windows overlooking where we were shooting. And we had to set up a screen so they couldn’t see anything, which is really funny.
But in terms of how quick it was, I mean, we shot in 16 days, which is incredibly fast. I think everyone just worked so hard and was so prepared and otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it. We also got a sick grant from Panavision to use their equipment. So we had two cameras which really helps a lot. There was only one day where we didn’t make all the scenes. And we just shot that scene the next day. So, honestly, it sounds terrifying, but it never felt like we were not gonna get this done. But it was scary at times. We were very stressed.
Do you find especially in recent times—I think there’s been a lot of Catholic content, not made by Catholic people necessarily, but with all these Pope shows—do you find yourself drawn to religious content, or straying away from that content?
Oh, I love them. I haven’t seen a lot of the shows, unfortunately. But I really love “Spotlight.” That’s really old though. I like stories where people are sort of coming to terms with hypocrisy within religion. Not necessarily because I think religion is evil or bad, but I just think it’s really complex. There are lots of good films out there, like “Doubt.” I love “Doubt,” where the women characters are more explored. And they lack so much agency, at least in Catholicism. And some Christian religions, obviously in terms of leadership roles, but yeah, they just don’t have any agency. It’d be cool to see more of those. And what’s that black and white movie? “Ida,” that was great.
Yeah, and where do you find yourself now? Are you religious at all now?
I used to be atheist and now I’m agnostic, which really excites my dad. I married a Jewish man and we do Jewish stuff. We go to Rosh Hashanah services and Yom Kippur and we do Passover. But nothing extreme. Yeah, nothing orthodox levels. But the older I get, the more I’m into the idea of some greater being. I’m not sure what that is. I say I’m somewhat spiritual, but I definitely am really still turned off by any kind of strictly organized religion where I’m told I can’t do certain things. And I think that’s because of my upbringing.
And is that something that you’re looking to explore with future films and TV?
I like to make different things but I would explore this area again, for sure. I just think it’s so great and interesting. And there was even that Netflix show about that Hasidic woman who leaves her home in Brooklyn. “Unorthodox,” that was so good. It’s the same thing, the general idea about overcoming some kind of adversity or repression. I just think it’s because I can connect to them in a deeper way, because I’ve experienced something similar. I just find it fascinating. I think religion in general is just really fascinating.