Adapted from a film short into a movie, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” exhibits the strain of the magnification process — as premises go, feeling a little light in terms of the collection plate. The central performances, however, make this dark satire awkwardly watchable, with Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as the disgraced pastor and his wife desperately plotting a comeback.
“Pastor Childs, are the allegations true?” Brown’s Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs is asked near the outset, while leaving the specifics of the scandal purposefully vague for much of the movie.
The details are actually relatively insignificant, as the relentlessly upbeat pastor and his wife Trinitie (Hall) work to rebuild their Atlanta megachurch, which once boasted thousands of parishioners, planning a triumphant reopening on Easter Sunday.
Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.’
In what looks like an act of hubris, the Childs have also invited a documentary crew to tag along, fly-on-the-wall style, as they go about the process, although there are enough uncomfortable moments that they frequently find themselves speaking directly to the unseen filmmakers, asking them to leave out certain material.
That device represents the kind of thing that student filmmakers use, and writer-director Adamma Ebo — who produced the film along with her twin sister Adanne, the stars, Daniel Kaluuya, and Jordan Peele — might have dispensed with it in this format, though it does serve the purpose of forcing Brown and Hall to keep smiles plastered across their faces, while tension simmers just beneath the manicured surface as they see their empire slipping away.
Eventually, amid references to “the settlement” paid out to those wrong, they resort to roadside preaching, an indication of how far the mighty have fallen. They also watch their congregants flock to another church run by a younger couple (Nicole Beharie, Conphidance), which aren’t particularly good at hiding their interest in capitalizing on their competitors’ misfortune — what the former calls a “landfill of a circumstance.”
Having made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, “Honk for Jesus” obviously has commentary about the transactional nature of certain religious outfits baked into the concept, showing off Pastor Childs’ flashy outfits and expensive shoes as evidence of those who profit off their flocks. But that broader aspect of the movie feels underdeveloped, focusing specifically on the central couple’s plight, and particularly the extent to which Trinitie will go, to quote the song, in standing by her man.
In that sense, the movie provides a solid showcase for Brown and Hall while establishing Ebo as a talent to watch, if not, in this setting, one who completely delivers.
“I am not a perfect man,” Pastor Childs concedes at one point.
While “Honk for Jesus” isn’t a perfect movie, give it praise for at least being an interesting one.
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” premieres Sept. 2 in US theaters and on Peacock. It’s rated R.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) is the “First Lady” of Wander to Greater Paths, an Atlanta Southern Baptist megachurch run by her husband, Lee-Curtis (Sterling K. Brown). They are 25,000 parishioners strong—or rather, they were 25,000 parishioners strong. When writer/director Adamma Ebo’s film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” opens, they are down to five of their former faithful. A mysterious scandal has depleted their ranks, and a documentary crew helmed by an unseen woman named Anita is shooting footage for the Lee-Curtis Childs redemption tour. The disgraced pastor tells his wife that his comeback is going to be like the film “Rocky.” “But Rocky lost,” she informs him. This comparison is the first of many portents of doom.
Trinitie and Lee-Curtis try to keep up airs whenever they’re on camera. Ebo changes the aspect ratio to inform us when we’re seeing the mockumentary footage and when we’re witnessing private details meant only for us. For Anita’s viewfinder, the Childs sit in golden thrones at the front of their empty church, explaining to future viewers certain types of worship like “praise miming,” which is exactly what you think it is. Like all Protestant pastors of this particular sect, Lee-Curtis is all razzle-dazzle, an entertainer who is always on and who has the attire to back up the flash. “I love Prada,” he says as the camera swoops through his massive closet filled with suits of so many colors they’d shame Joseph’s coat. The only thing more outrageous is the Childs’ shoe collection.
Trinitie, on the other hand, is the quintessential pastor’s wife: faithful, supportive and more than a little bit petty. Keeping up appearances seems to be her modus operandi, so it’s no surprise that fate will make her life a living Hell of embarrassments. A scene between her and Sister Denetta (Olivia D. Dawson) a former parishioner she runs into during a shopping frenzy at the mall is a hilarious and realistic exercise in good, old-fashioned Southern passive-aggressiveness. If you are a Church Lady, or if you know one, this scene will ring true while offering all the cringeworthy comedy the situation deserves.
And to where did all the worshippers of Wander to Greater Paths wander? To a new church run by a younger married couple, Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie, respectively). Heaven’s House church not only makes a very loud and joyous noise unto the Lord on Sundays, it’s grown so big that the Sumpters have to open a second location. Unfortunately for the Childs, that grand opening corresponds with their plans to use that same Easter Sunday for Lee-Curtis’ triumphant return to the pulpit.
“What good are disciples when they are not disciplined?” Lee-Curtis asks when confronted with the accusation that he fired his deacons. “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” asks the same discipline-based question about Lee-Curtis. It’s pretty easy to figure out just what kind of sexual misconduct he’s been accused of perpetrating, and Ebo gets some mileage out of snippets of a call-in radio show where Atlanta residents voice their opinions. Footage of Rev. Childs’ sermon against homosexuality is used as more than just a reminder of the numerous times my church informed me that Jesus hated me and my LGBTQ brethren. Of course, Lee-Curtis blames the Devil for his sins. “The Devil is a roach under the floorboards” he says. The only way he’d know that is if he were under the floorboards looking for him.
When Ebo concentrates on the satirical aspects that mock the hypocrisy she’s exposing, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” hilariously fires on all cylinders. It’s when the film tries to juggle the darker aspects that its seams start to show. The last 15 minutes or so juxtapose some very absurd imagery with deep, painful confrontations. It’s to Hall and Brown’s credit that the film manages to stay afloat. Hall’s face is a wonderland of expressions both subtle and grandiose, and she knows which ones to deploy at the perfect time. Not many actresses could survive playing scenes of devastation in full mime makeup. The last shot of the film mirrors her face with a garish Black Jesus statue Lee-Curtis demanded she use to promote their comeback. Hall milks it for all the pathos it’s worth, and more.