Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

The married leaders of an Atlanta megachurch invite a film crew to document their post-scandal comeback in the debut feature from Adamma and Adanne Ebo.

Lee-Curtis Childs and “First Lady” Trinitie Childs, megachurch leaders with matching thrones and a predilection for luxury goods, are delusional in different ways, and to different degrees. As Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul begins, they’re trying to rebuild their congregation after a sexual misconduct scandal emptied the pews. With off-the-charts hubris, he deflects blame, even though he’s responsible. Her tightly wound stand-by-your-man allegiance is unraveling, stitch by stitch. They’re played by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, virtuosos of the forced smile and performative laugh. Their portrayals skirt caricature as they navigate widening hairline fractures between the Childses’ self-glorifying theatricality and their glimmers of self-awareness. If only the film around them were as finely tuned.

Expanding upon a 2018 short of the same name, the sibling filmmakers known as the Ebo twins — writer-director-producer Adamma Ebo and producer Adanne Ebo — use a mix of mockumentary and conventional narrative to lampoon the prosperity gospel, à la the Bakkers, but from a distinctly Southern Black perspective. There are suggestions that the helmer isn’t just skewering the idea of a personality-cult money machine, but also grappling with questions about religion as a community’s vital connective tissue, although those questions feel half-formed. As the strutting central duo “favor the Lord” with their mansion and haute couture, the overlong movie often feels all dressed up with nowhere to go, devolving into a repetitive collection of spoofy bits. A handful of sharply written moments stand out, suggesting the satire that might have been.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul

The Bottom Line

Two vivid characters in search of a story.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Cast: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Austin Crute, Conphidance, Nicole Beharie

Director-screenwriter: Adamma Ebo

1 hour 42 minutes

Brown’s egomaniac extraordinaire has asked filmmaker Anita (Andrea Laing), unseen but heard from briefly near the movie’s end, to “chronicle the ultimate comeback”: He and Trinitie plan an Easter Sunday reboot of their Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. All but five of the 25,000 congregants have fled, which has been a, well, godsend for another Baptist church in Atlanta, Heaven’s House, to which many of them defected. Thanks to the influx from the mega-flock, married ministers Shakura and Keon Sumpter (a spot-on Nicole Beharie and Conphidance) are preparing to unveil their new, larger church, aka Heaven’s House 2.0. Their big event is also scheduled for Easter.

The matter of the dueling reopenings serves as a plot engine of sorts, but the main trajectory of the movie is Trinitie’s awakening, superbly played by Hall but all too obviously telegraphed by the director. While her spouse expects the doc to serve the all-important project of his reputation rehabilitation, First Lady Childs’ misgivings about it are clear from the get-go, diluting the intended zing of the feature’s later stretches. Lee-Curtis’ hypocrisy also comes as no surprise, although a glimpse of the couple’s sex life offers a bolder insight than the clip of him preaching against homosexuality or the phone conversations with the lawyer who’s negotiating settlements with the young men who are the pastor’s accusers.

Writer-director Ebo has an eye for character types, but doesn’t always know what to do with them. An early sequence involving the so-called Devout Five, the worshippers who chose not to wander away from Wander to Greater Paths (they’re played by Robert Yatta, Greta Marable Glenn, Crystal Alicia Garrett, Selah Kimbro Jones and Perris Drew), goes nowhere. The same can be said of a number of the film’s interactions, including Trinitie’s conversation with her mother (Avis-Marie Barnes), however well played. Honk for Jesus could have used more exchanges that contradict, complicate and enhance the characterizations rather than hitting a well-worn groove.

The film’s only true tension arrives when a cellphone-recording observer stands in silent, gum-chewing disdain by the side of the road where the Childses are making a last-ditch effort at drumming up support. Otherwise the final sequences feel more ludicrous and wan than effective. Elsewhere, the movie is most involving when the screenplay lets a grounded strangeness seep in. The way the central duo reach for rat and roach analogies to make their points has a terrific deadpan edge, and Brown puts a fever-pitch spin on the eureka moment when the preacher proclaims that “Jesus was all about the shock factor.” Trinitie’s encounter with former congregant Sister Denetta (a memorable Olivia D. Dawson) is brimming with passive-aggressive chatter, finding just the right degree of over-the-top.

Hall and Brown are a glorious kick to watch, their physicality at times bordering on slapstick. For the most part, she’s tight-lipped and contained. And he’s wordlessly extravagant in expressing Lee-Curtis’ impatience with the whole damn world and his belief that it should be at his disposal, whether he’s flirting with a new acquaintance or trying to shut down an anguished accuser (Austin Crute). A car scene when the couple sing along — with fervor, if not joy — to some homegrown Atlanta hip-hop (Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck”) feels like the movie’s most revealing moment.

Ebo makes effective use of faux TV news clips and especially of a Greek chorus in the form of fictional callers to a Black talk radio show. These voices weigh in on the megachurch scandal, one of their questions being why Trinitie stays with her disgraced husband. Along with the screenplay, Hall’s performance veers between an earnest commitment to the spiritual and social relevance of church (and of church hats, just one facet of Lorraine Coppin’s vibrant costume design) and a bit of Lady Macbeth-style ambition. “Get me back on that stage,” she hisses in an unguarded moment, making clear that this is no less important than her husband’s return to the pulpit.

Ultimately, though, the fate of Trinitie might matter less than that of the Sumpters. Spotlighting the show business aspect of for-profit religion, Ebo may not maintain her satiric edge, but she does leave us to ponder the younger couple’s sincerity, a question with wider implications. Shakura and Keon are mirror images of the Childses — does that mean they’re inescapably headed down a similar road?

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Pinky Promise, 59% Productions, Ejime Productions, Rh Negative, Indian Meadows Productions
Cast: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Austin Crute, Conphidance, Nicole Beharie, Devere Rogers, Avis-Marie Barnes, Olivia D. Dawson, Mike Dyl, Nastashia L. Fuller, Robert Yatta, Greta Marable Glenn, Crystal Alicia Garrett, Selah Kimbro Jones, Perris Drew, Andrea Laing
Director-screenwriter: Adamma Ebo
Producers: Rowan Riley, Daniel Kaluuya, Amandla Crichlow, Matthew Cooper, Jessamine Burgum, Adanne Ebo, Adamma Ebo, Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Kara Durrett
Executive producers: Carolina Groppa, Will Greenfield, Lucy Keith
Director of photography: Alan Gwizdowski
Production designer: John Collins
Costume designer: Lorraine Coppin
Editors: Ali Greer, Stacy Moon
Music: Marcus Norris
Casting: Shannon Reis

1 hour 42 minutes