Natalia Dyer was recently scrolling through a Buzzfeed article ranking hot animated characters when she had an epiphany. “I was like, maybe that’s why I liked Aladdin,” she tells Refinery29 over the phone. “Something really drew me to that character. Was I being turned on?”
Desire has been on Dyer’s mind lately. Best known for playing Nancy Wheeler on Stranger Things, she’s trading in the 1980s for the early aughts in Yes, God, Yes, a new film about a teenage girl discovering her burgeoning sexual desires, seemingly at odds with her strict Catholic upbringing.
At school, Alice (Dyer) meticulously tucks her shirt into her knee-length skirt, avoiding the citations for promiscuity her peers get from overzealous teachers. She’s the meek one in her friend group, the girl who gets excited about chocolate pudding at lunch, drinks her milk, and volunteers for mass. But in the privacy of her basement, she spends her afternoons chatting online with sleazy strangers, the only people she can turn to to ask the questions she so desperately needs answered. Why did she rewind that car scene in Titanic over and over again? Is it really, as she tells her best friend, because she didn’t catch Kate Winslet’s answer to Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Where to ma’am?” (For the record, it’s: “To the stars.”) Or, is it because she knows that moments later, the two will be locked in a steamy embrace?
Ashamed of urges she’s not equipped or encouraged to understand, Alice decides to attend a religious retreat offered by her high school. But it turns out, she’s not the only one who’s figuring things out when it comes to sex.
Directed by Obvious Child cowriter Karen Maine, Yes, God, Yes started out as a 2017 short film, also starring Dyer, who was immediately drawn to a project that approached sex through the female gaze.
“This [movie] struck me as something that was so daring, unfortunately. It’s messy and awkward. It’s about sex and pleasure and exploring yourself, but there’s nothing really sexy about it, which I really liked. Female desire has been really entangled with being desirable. I think it hasn’t been shown or explored enough as those urges and what it feels like to want as a [woman.]”
That’s why, when Maine asked her to be in the feature-length adaptation, the Tennessee native jumped at the chance to make the kind of film she wished she’d had access to as a teen. “I grew up in a sort of religious school environment and there were similar — not so overt — messages being sent about sex and sexuality,” Dyer explains. “Nobody was really talking about it. Even now, we’re coming into this space where women are talking about masturbating and sexuality, but there’s less fluency as to how. There’s still a taboo about it.”
As the protagonist in an indie film, Yes, God, Yes, marks a transition for the actress, who was set to reprise her role as Nancy in season 4 of Stranger Things before production shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But she’s not the only Netflix alum in the film — Wolfgang Novogratz, who starred in The Half of It and Feel The Beat, plays Alice’s crush Chris, and Alisha Boe, who plays Jessica Davis in 13 Reasons Why, co-stars as Nina, one of the leaders at the Catholic retreat Alice attends.
According to Dyer, she and Boe bonded over the experience of carving out an identity as an actor and an individual after finding fame in a beloved franchise.
“The biggest thing is how it affects — not really your career, but the way your life has changed,” she notes. “The Netflix shows have a very beautifully passionate and dedicated fanbase. And it’s [mostly] amazing, but it can get a little overwhelming at times, trying to figure out how to be that person. It was really nice to talk to [Alisha]. It’s a very particular experience to go through, so there’s a bond there inherently.”
Just as she’s leaning on her peers to to navigate the new waters of fame, Dyer hopes Yes, God, Yes will be a resource for young women who feel like they’re lost at sea when it comes to sex.
“It's okay to not know what you're doing,” she says. “It’s okay to be curious, and to feel like you're not alone in a world where it's confusing to explore desire. Even if just one person watches the film and is like, Wow, that's that's me. Or, That was me. It’s really powerful to be able to see yourself on a screen.”