Bolstered by exceptional performances by Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, Ebo’s memorable film strikes the right balance between drama and humor.
In her feature film debut, writer-director Adamma Ebo seamlessly blends satire with incisive drama about the downfall of a megachurch pastor and his attempts to resurrect his reputation. Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, filmed partially in a mockumentary style, examines megachurch pastors as icons, a scandal’s effects on the community, and who exactly benefits after a seemingly infallible leader falls from his pedestal. Bolstered by exceptional performances by Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, Ebo’s memorable film strikes the right balance between drama and humor.
After sexual misconduct allegations surface, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) and his wife, “First Lady” Trinitie Childs (Hall) close down their Atlanta-based megachurch, Wander to Greater Paths. However, a month before they’re set to reopen on Easter Sunday, Lee-Curtis invites a documentarian to chronicle their time in a bid to boost their reputation and aid what they believe will be a spectacular comeback. They try to encourage congregants’ return while facing some competition from Pastor Keon Sumpter (Conphidance) and his wife Shakura (Nicole Beharie), whose church will have a grand opening on the same day as Wander to Greater Paths. All the while, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie try to maintain their composure and their smiles amongst a community that no longer holds them to the same level of respect they once did.
Ebo explores megachurch culture and its two central figures, who were once so popular they attracted over 26,000 congregants to church each Sunday. Ebo hones in on the moments that showcase how very human Trinitie and Lee-Curtis are without creating a false sense of sympathy. Rather, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul puts on display the effects the sexual misconduct allegations have on their community. Through interviews, radio station callers, and faux archive footage of Lee-Curtis at the height of his pastoral fame, Ebo approaches the complicated relationship between the church and its congregation with derision and poignancy.
By expanding the scope of Lee-Curtis’ impact, the film touches upon those most affected by his actions, including Trinitie, who continues to stand by her husband despite being ridiculed and demeaned in public for the sake of guarding his reputation. Thanks to superb editing by Stacy Moon, the film seamlessly shifts between its funny, mockumentary-style scenes to moments that are heavy with serious realization. Lee-Curtis is adamant that he still has work to do and, like Jesus, he will rise again, continuing his efforts to work through God and save souls. But it’s through Trinitie that the audience is fully able to grasp the scathing repercussions and the hypocrisy brimming throughout.
Lee-Curtis acts like he’s above everyone else and closer to God, but it’s in his darkest hour that the film conveys that not even he is better or favored, with Ebo examining the religious superiority that gave him such an idea and the power that kept him there. The writer-director is also intuitive when it comes to the film’s tone, knowing when to lean into the comedy — with the couple calling cut on filming because they can’t agree on whether to say “aye-men” or “ah-men” — and when to linger on the seriousness of a situation like in the tense stand-off between Lee-Curtis and a former member of the church. When the documentarian asks Trinitie why she doesn’t leave, Regina Hall’s captivating monologue excellently captures the layers behind it all.
Hall and Sterling K. Brown’s performances greatly elevate the film as well. Both actors, who are typically fantastic, are able to swing between hilarity and drama without missing a beat. Hall’s Trinitie is uncomfortable with the documentation of their lives and that discomfort colors her feelings, even as she gives obviously forced smiles and questions why she continues to show up for Lee-Curtis. Hall captures these emotions so powerfully, her expressions alerting viewers to the depth hiding beneath the façade. Brown, meanwhile, portrays Lee-Curtis as someone with a huge ego who seems like he truly believes what he’s selling. But it’s in the quieter moments that Brown pulls back the curtains on his character to reveal a man who is forced to face the reality of his fall from grace.
Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul is a strong feature film debut from Ebo. The film grapples with megachurch culture and the leaders who so often seem untouchable with ease, starting off the story with a lot of satirical humor before delving further into the drama. The film’s characters are human and, while they’re afforded depth and nuance, Ebo isn’t interested in coddling them or excusing Lee-Curtis’ behavior. And it’s in the balanced exploration of characters and religious hypocrisy, the blending of the facetious with the serious that makes the film worth the watch.
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Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film is 102 minutes long and is not yet rated.
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