Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features releases the film in theaters and streaming on Peacock on Friday, September 2.
Initially scanning as a “Best in Show”-esque mockumentary send-up of megachurch culture in the time of #MeToo, Adamma Ebo’s feature directorial debut “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” steadily moves into darker territory, though all of it is in service to biting back at a target-rich environment ripe for onscreen ripping. Featuring stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown doing predictably divine work (do these two performers know any other way?), “Honk for Jesus” is equal parts hilarious and painful, an incisive upbraiding of the sorts of people who should have long ago realized no one — especially nattily attired pastors — is above God.
Once top of the heap in their Georgia town, thanks to their thousands-strong Southern Baptist congregation at the snazzy Wander to Greater Pastures megachurch, Trinitie (Hall) and Lee-Curtis (Brown) are months deep into a scandal that’s nearly sunk them. Through amusingly crafted newscasts and fake archival footage, Ebo introduces the duo and their current lot in life — not great, but as Trinitie tells us, stone-faced, they’re ready to gnaw through any problems with the tenacity of a rat — and their plan to win it all back.
Set up as a mockumentary, Ebo moves between different narrative styles with ease: There’s the “on-camera” stuff, but then moments that follow the Childs even when their for-hire doc director isn’t around, with man-on-the-street interviews and plenty of invented archival footage to hold it all together. The most amusing bits are, however, the ones that spin off the clever charm of “Best in Show” or “Waiting for Guffman,” forcing Trinitie and Lee-Curtis to vocalize and explain both their situation and who they are as people.
The pair are clearly used to being in charge, and spend most of the scenes in which the film’s unseen (but, at one point, heard) filmmaker is lensing them to tell her what to do. “You can cut,” an uncomfortable Trinitie announces early, and it’s a miracle we only hear Lee-Curtis suggest they can “edit around” something only once. Mostly, they seem to think they can direct the entire thing for their own ends, and as a fervent, almost maniacal Lee-Curtis beams early on, this will “chronicle the ultimate comeback!” Of course, only the sort of people who would think it’s appropriate to stage their own version of a resurrection on Easter Sunday would ever believe they can pull any (all?) strings.
As the Childs ready to return to the stage, “First Lady” Trinitie tries desperately to hold things together, while Lee-Curtis can barely conceal the maniacal gleam in his eye. Good God, audiences will think, what are these two getting up to? Oh, just you wait.
The film is, particularly in its first act, very funny indeed: a scene in which Trinitie and Lee-Curtis walk us through their dazzling shared closet and she coos, “There’s just something about a pastor in Prada!” or a sequence that sees the couple demanding to reshoot a baptism because they can’t agree on the proper way to pronounce “Amen!” at its conclusion are incredibly amusing. But as “Honk for Jesus” ticks on, Easter Sunday looming over everyone and everything, it starts sliding away from the mockumentary-ish feel and broader jokes.
As Ebo slowly reveals the true nature of the “allegations” made against Lee-Curtis — maybe something financial?, audiences will likely wonder at the start — the film inevitably needs to turn more serious and cutting. And while first-time feature filmmaker Ebo can’t always make her dueling tones work fluidly, Hall and Brown help guide “Honk for Jesus” through any rough patches. (It’s also worth noting that the film’s most purely dramatic scene, centered around “Booksmart” breakout Austin Crute in his only appearance in the film, is wrenching, incredibly well-acted, and crisply directed. While audiences might crave more belly laughs, Ebo instinctively knows just how sharp her film needs to get, and when.)
Elsewhere, Ebo has imagined a compelling assortment of secondary “talking heads,” like rival married pastors Keon (Conphidance) and Shakura Sumpter (Nicole Beharie), barely able to disguise their glee over what’s happened to the Childs (and, of course, unable to even consider it could happen to them). Early on, we also meet “the devout five,” consisting of Lee-Childs’ only remaining parishioners, smile and squint their way through their interviews (most of them don’t believe the allegations, only one of them is there because she likes church just as much as she likes guns). Other former believers pop up on occasion, including a memorable sequence in a local mall that sees Trinitie ably (and hilariously) illuminating the real meaning of telling someone “bless your heart.”
As Ebo works up to the Childs’ last grand stand, “Honk for Jesus” continues to weave together the cutting and the absurd — no, an early mention of the charms of “mime praising” is not a throwaway line, not at all — and the filmmaker allows Hall and Brown to really go for broke. The result is a winning combination of the divine and the horrific, a takedown of not just fervent religiosity but our own worst human impulses. As one character notes early on, what she loves so much about church is the theater of it all, and Ebo delivers on that affection with her own divine sermon, more than worthy of our praise.
“Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
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