This review of Adamma Ebo’s Honk for Jesus Save Your Soul is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
For-profit megachurches are a delicious target. There’s something infectiously tantalizing about ambushing organizations that transform your donations into golden pulpit thrones and never-ending Prada closets. The self-proclaimed high and mighty offer the greatest falls, and we can’t be blamed for our resulting schadenfreude giggles. These humble hypocrites brought their collapse on themselves, and such low-hanging fruit is irresistible. Eve, go get that apple.
Writer-director Adamma Ebo has her knives out in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. But the stabs are never as funny or vicious as their promise. Her initial short film of the same name adheres to a strict mockumentary format, but her feature adaptation refuses us a full This is Spinal Tap feast. Instead, we get a film within a film, or a film throughout a film. This decision does not create greater character clarity — quite the opposite.
Wander To Greater Paths, the Southern Baptist megachurch has lost its flock. Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) is reeling from a recent scandal involving multiple sexual harassment charges. He’s settled out of court with all but one of his accusers, and it’s time to reopen the business. Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall), his wife, is eager to get back on that stage as well, and together they’ve reluctantly agreed to allow a camera crew to film their triumphant return. They need proof the pastor is a changed man, and by God, they will provide that proof.
Lee-Curtis seems incapable of seeing how others perceive him, and that’s where the comedy works best. Brown straddles fragility and pomposity exceptionally, selling a profound need for affirmation as his pastor reaches beyond the cameras to engage with their operators. They’re here for a job and to maybe capture something a little more sensational than what their subjects are pledging. He’s here to convince them of his righteousness, and the only way he knows how to do that is to show off his bling.
Trinitie is far more suspicious of the crew, and she’s much less skilled at hiding her emotions. Hall presents every smile and laugh as a scream. Nothing she says reveals what she’s actually communicating, and this fraught duality delivers Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul‘s most alluring material. Beneath Trinitie’s veneer is a human desperately paddling to stay afloat, as her existence is tethered to her husband’s tainted reputation. She’s doomed.
Frustratingly, the scavenger hunt for authenticity is undercut by the narrative segments that stand apart from the mockumentary. Rather than offering deeper insight, rendering a reality away from their manicured onscreen personas, these sequences reveal the same Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe these two lost their true selves years ago, but Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. does not drill down into that idea either.
Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are strangers to each other. They want what they had, but there’s no going back to that period before Lee-Curtis’ failings were exposed. His bluster to reclaim the spotlight burns Trinitie to her core, and she retreats into herself until she can no longer.
She can outspend him. Trinitie’s vengeance is matching her husband’s Bugattis with diamond-encrusted bonnets. The Lord says, “Come as you are,” but “God don’t like ugly.” Her monetary retribution is the closest Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. gets to that Spinal Tap eleven, and within the Childs’ excessive gorging is some resonant satire.
Swirling around these gleaming extravagancies is this notion that their wealth is a reflection of their goodness. They earned their jewels, and as long as they maintain them, their pathway to salvation will remain clear. All that’s standing between them is a little hush money and an encroaching wannabe megachurch couple played by Nicole Beharie and Conphidance. But, surely, the Childs’ old congregation won’t fall for their new tricks.
Brown revels in Lee-Curtis’ crumbling exterior, and you spend most of the movie waiting for those walls to collapse. Both he and we are denied this particular satisfaction. Lee-Curtis falls to the wayside, forever imprisoned by the fiction he’s created. Instead, the script zeroes on Trinitie and her boiling mad last stand.
In its final minutes, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. nearly saves itself with Hall’s crackling performance. She rips open, and we’re awash in her sorrow and pain. All those little screams hidden in her laughs are unleashed, and Hall quivers with an energy sorely missing in everything that preceded it. Again, you sense that that might be the intent; here is the real Trinitie Childs in all her glory. But the two films — the mockumentary and the widescreen narrative — spend too much time in conflict with each other to allow us to acclimate.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.’s ultimate sin is its bounce between two storytelling styles. Neither are unique enough to support their purpose, and both reduce the other’s potency. When compared to Ebo’s original short film, the feature does not contribute anything new. Beyond its two striking leads, that is. And can you really be too mad about more Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall in your life? No. No, you cannot.
Related Topics: Sundance