Yes, God, Yes

Alice masturbates

Yes, God, Yes – a funny title pithily catching the twin obsessions of this slight but sharp movie. Sex and god. It stars Natalia Dyer, who somehow has managed to fit this in alongside the nine other movies and 30-odd episodes of the Netflix show Stranger Things she’s appeared in over the last six years or so.

She was about 24 when she made this, but the big eyes and slender frame mean she can just about get away with playing Alice, a teenager from a sheltered background grappling with the first stirrings of sexuality at the Catholic school that seems almost unnaturally fixated on the carnal.

Coming of agers with storylines that feature young women masturbating are few and far between, but that’s what’s on offer here, andYes, God, Yes’s intent is clearly to portray this sort of thing as entirely normal. It’s the god-focused anti-sex brigade who are depicted as aberrant, on account of their blatant hypocrisy. In fact that’s the entire arc of the film – she’s fine, it turns out, it’s everyone else who’s wonky.

And to make the point super obvious, writer director Karen Maine takes her hero out of school – where Alice is so clueless about things sexual that when someone accuses her of having tossed some boy’s salad, the innuendo whooshes straight over her head – and takes her off to a Catholic retreat full of happy clappy young people, earnest and perma-beaming priests keen (too keen) to get the youth to unburden themselves of their lusty thoughts and camp leaders who insert themselves into the lives of the new arrivals in a way that is suspicious in any context, religious groups no longer getting the free pass they once did.

Here, the trembling Alice, her libido having initially been awakened by Leo and Kate’s steamed-up windows in Titanic, runs smack into weapons-grade hunk and boundlessly upbeat Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), who thinks everything is “awesome” and doesn’t yet know that Alice wanted to jump him the second she caught sight of his hairy forearms. What’s a girl to do?

Chris give Alice a chaste side-hug
Chris give Alice a chaste side-hug

As already mentioned, this film is entirely on Alice’s side, slightly to its detriment. Religiosity coming in for a bit of a kicking is hardly novel, but Dyer helps makes it work with a performance that is entirely winning. She’s also got a touch of the wide-eyed “who, me?” delivery skills of Jennifer Aniston – no bad thing.

Karen Maine co-wrote the 2014 movie Obvious Child, a vehicle for comedian Jenny Slate which also had an interest in the policing of women’s bodies, and much of Yes, God, Yes is based on Maine’s own experience growing up in the Mid-West and attending a Catholic school where, so the dogma went, all non-procreative sex was sinful. Obvious Child was based on a short of the same title, and Yes, God, Yes repeats the formula, also being a brief film (1hr 18mins) based on an original short of 11 minutes. In interviews Maine has suggested that she was worried if she added anything more to the final cut of Yes, God, Yes it would have extended it beyond its natural span. She’s right about that. This gets in, says what it has to say and gets out again.

Maine has a handle on high school manners and speech, and catches the earnestness of youth well, especially when youth is on its soapbox, but also the paradoxical twin poles of youthful chastity and horniness. That she managed to catch Dyer just as Stranger Things was turning her into a big name is a massive plus for her and this film. Dyer sells the proposition and is the making of the film.

Yes, God, Yes – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Billy and Virginia

Tuscaloosa kicks off with an urgent, arresting image laying out what’s at stake, archive footage of George Wallace making his infamous “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation for ever!” pitch on the campaign stump in 1963, before even more footage shows Wallace in the full glare of the TV cameras blocking the entrance to the University of Alabama to two black students.

A flash even further back in time, to 1953, and a car containing a white woman and a black woman, caught in freeze frame, the two having run away together. They ended up, we learn, so badly disfigured in the burnt-out hull of the car that their bodies were unrecognisable.

And cut forward, to the Summer of 72 (Tuscaloosa’s alternate title), where the story settles into its groove, introduces Billy (Devon Bostick), dude-ish, slackerish son of the chief doctor (Tate Donovan) at a mental asylum, where a summer of ostentatious smoking and mowing the lawns is increasingly frustrating the stiff, casually racist, golf-playing dad, who’s wondering why he spent all that money on Billy’s college education.

To irritate his father even more, probably, Billy starts making eyes at one of the patients, Virginia, a mouthy and pretty chatterbox, against the explicit warnings from his dad not to mix with the crazies.

Between times, Billy also hangs with Nigel (Marchánt Davis), a black kid he grew up with, and likes to think of as his “brother” (as well as his weed supplier and his gateway to cool black existence). Nigel is less sure of this brothers angle, especially since he started listening to his radicalised friends, one of whom (played by YG) doesn’t just quote Black Panther Huey Newton but also dresses like him.

Based on Glasgow Phillips’s novel, this is a film about two women of different skin colours who run away to be together in the 1950s Deep South. It’s also a film about their two sons, who turn out to be Billy and Nigel. And a film about Billy and Virginia’s increasingly close relationship. Tuscaloosa has plenty of transgressive relationships to fit in to its relatively modest running time and the way it does that is by relegating the women to a walk-on (a drive-on, really) at the top and tail of the action, then relegating the Billy and Nigel relationship to a series of stiff-legged encounters in which Billy pitches his feelings to Nigel (under the skin, we’re brothers) and Nigel responds with a cold, hard negative. Billy can’t, or won’t, see that he and Nigel live in different worlds where different rules apply.

Billy, NIgel and Virginia with hands in the air
Stick em up: Billy, Nigel and Virginia

We’re left with Billy and Virginia and a love story with a familiar One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dimension – Virginia’s “madness”, it turns out, is to have pointed out the craziness of the society she lives in. Feisty.

Luckily, Devon Bostick (new to me) is a charming presence, and Natalia Dyer (of Stranger Things) lights up the screen every time she’s on it. They make for a couple whose love deserves to win through, but though they come across as plausible, the people they’re surrounded with are either cardboard racists (Billy’s dad and good ol’ boy pals, the local police), or cardboard black people (Nigel and friends). This would not matter so much if Tuscaloosa were just a love story, and if George Wallace and Black Power hadn’t been name-checked so obviously in the film’s setup, but they were. What’s more, it’s with Nigel and his increasingly activist friends, and the local cops’ violent reaction to it, where the drama is actually playing out, almost off in the wings.

Philip Harder’s first feature after a career making video shorts for the likes of Prince, Foo Fighters and Incubus demonstrates he knows his way around a camera. He dredges the world of Billy and Virginia in the sort of Coca-Cola colours that once taught the world to sing and delivers scenes that are brisk and punchy. It’s Harder as the adapter of the original novel who’s slipped up here. What we’re promised is not what’s delivered and Tuscaloosa feels like a blatant case of mis-selling.

Tuscaloosa – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021