In Jia Tolentino’s essay on her Houston experience with drugs and megachurch Christianity, she traverses the disturbing yet revealing valley between her religious experiences and the institution (the Repentagon, as she calls it) that was far too interested in everything but. The Righteous Gemstones, Danny McBride’s vulgar skewering of corporate religion, threads the broad theatrical links between televangelists, pro wrestlers and organized criminals. Attempting to take its place alongside these variously comical examinations of the health and wealth gospel, writer/director Adamma Ebo’s feature debut (expanded from her and producer sister Adanne’s short), Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. shines its glorious light down upon new corners of the phenomenon, but its formal and satirical strategies flicker in the face of a dark subject that deserves an equally ridiculous critique.
Inside of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., which looks at Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and first lady Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall), the regents of Southern Baptist megachurch Wander To Greater Paths, there is a warring pair of movies. First, there’s a faux documentary about the pair reopening their enterprise after a sex scandal shut them down. It’s bright and gaudy and with all the formal fixings you’d expect: Quick, handheld zooms on reactions and jokes based on multiple takes, talking-head framing and identifying captions.
Then, there’s the “real” movie. The aspect ratio extends from the mock doc’s boxy fullscreen to a dramatic wide, losing its glossy sheen and showing the Childs beyond their godly veneers. How the two formats interact starts as a point-counterpoint, showing how it really is after assessing the imperfect façade, then becomes seemingly random at times. It loses the plot just as quickly as the film itself, leaving its capable central duo preaching not even to the choir.
Brown’s bombastic evangelist is fine, but his self-involved bit is a little too facile—both in writing and performance. The same can be said for the megachurch prosperity gospel he pounds from the pulpit, which reminds parishioners that God’s many blessings can include your bank account if you play your cards right. Hall’s long-suffering and disrespected first lady, smile plastered and “bless your heart” always ready for deployment, is definitely better, but that’s almost entirely due to her abilities as a performer. Utilizing her background in the broadest comedy and detailed drama, she makes even unfunny jokes palatable and sells the hell out of the most milquetoast moments. We can see her swallow the normal human response after yelling “fuck you” at a woman that dresses her down on the street. The quick follow up “God bless” is golden. She’s even compelling in a silly sequence where she interpretively dances to gospel in “praise mime” makeup—makeup in which she also delivers the most impassioned and best-written monologue of the film.
That monologue is too little and too late in the movie, which isn’t as coy about the central pivot point surrounding Lee-Curtis’ scandal as the short. This new approach could’ve given Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. room to explore its predatory angle in more nuance than simply allowing it to act as a mic-drop, but scenes intent on highlighting the ways Lee-Curtis’ repression comes out in ways both sympathetic and exploitative traffic in mostly dull stereotypes. It’s a shame, because the movie brushes up against a variety of rich thematic material, including the misogyny inherent in Christianity, homophobia within the religious and Black communities and the American instinct to monetize any and all beliefs. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. knows that it’s all a joke, but doesn’t do enough work to construct its own.
When a statue of Black Jesus serves as a focal point for a confrontation or the Childs’ young and progressive co-pastor rivals (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance, straightfaced and funny) open up their new location, Heaven’s House, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is far too content to let its concepts speak for themselves. But for anyone familiar with this world, with the south, it’s all a bit too recognizable without sharp commentary tearing it down or extravagant excess pushing the characters beyond Osteen ostentation. Like its muddy multi-movie gamble, the ideas are there for Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. But like its characters, it’s happy to follow the path of least resistance.
Director: Adamma Ebo
Writers: Adamma Ebo
Stars: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown
Release Date: January 23, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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