Twin-sister team Adamma and Adanne Ebo play with some pretty hefty matches in this gleaming new satire, simultaneously demonstrating the pristine comedic timing of leads Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall at the same time as they delve into some thorny and evergreen questions about religious institutions’ corruption and corruptibility. Brown plays Lee-Curtis Childs, the imperially minded pastor of a mega-mega-church whose oversized public persona has recently been betrayed by a deeply embarrassing scandal he denies outright. Hall plays Trinitie Childs — in many ways the centerpiece of the film — whose second-to-second considerations and reconsiderations of why and how to support her husband are examined and toyed with brilliantly from start to finish.
With Adanne producing and Adamma as writer-director, both sisters seem dead-set on eviscerating the Southern Baptist culture in which they were both entrenched as adolescents. Like most effective satires, however, there’s love beneath the ribbing, and compassion behind the sharp criticism. In a manner akin to Danny McBride’s successful tightrope act with The Righteous Gemstones, the humor of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. rarely critiques religion itself, or even the institutions peddling it. Rather, it’s all about the human foibles that religious societies forcibly and delusionally pretend aren’t there.
The film is structured in an intriguing format that’s unpredictable and exciting to watch. First appearing like a run-of-the-mill puff-piece, we follow the Childses as they take us on a tour of the massive church they once called their dominion. Lee-Curtis’s scandal and its fallout drove away almost their entire congregation, who are now mostly worshipping at a rival church led by a younger and even cleaner-cut couple, the Sumpters (played with razor-wire faux-charm by Conphidance and a ruthless Nicole Beharie). The Childses expect their grand re-opening will see the masses flood back to them, and welcome these documentarians into their lives in the lead-up to this watershed event.
However, the documentarians themselves take on a new role early on as it becomes clear that the film-within-the-film is being structured to critique the Childses’ own vanity project. In a hilariously subtle send-up of this now-ubiquitous genre, the Documentary You Think Is About One Thing But Becomes About Something Else (Usually To Do With Generational Trauma) quickly takes over, and we watch as the Childses realize that the cameras are not as friendly as they expected — or as they need them to be.
Soon, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. transitions again into a hazily shot indie-drama feel, portraying the Childses much less romantically as they scheme, whine, and snap at each other in private spaces. It’s not all resentment, however, as the film niftily works in glints of genuine love and teamwork between the two; one standout scene sees Trinitie and Lee-Curtis driving home, rapping along to Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” at the top of their lungs. It’s a brilliant moment of deadpan, no-frills acting from both Brown and Hall, and proof enough that this film achieves a deft balance of grinning comedy and knife-twisting tension.
Regarding the former, many moments are laugh-out-loud funny and nail that wordy, bone-dry satire that few American comedies dare to attempt. Hall is particularly impressive, with every one of her excruciating deer-in-headlights moments in front of the documentary’s judgmental lens speaking volumes about her character’s journey. She embraces the script brilliantly as the film consumes her, leading to some marvelously funny line deliveries: when obsequiously inviting the filmmakers to see the hat shop from which Trinitie tends to select her Sunday-best fascinator, Hall introduces the visit with, “In church, we have a saying: come as you are. But that’s mostly sentiment, of course.” It’s a line the Veep writers may very well have concocted in a parallel universe. What’s more, Hall is so good at these moments that one wonders what she might do with a Selina Meyer-esque role in the near future.
Regarding the harsher elements at work, the clearly COVID-safe filmmaking thankfully plays into the film’s tone perfectly. The oddly empty public spaces lend the movie a ghost-town quality that feels eerie and effective given its portrayal of such morally and existentially adrift protagonists. Additionally, many shots outside the diegetic documentary are deliberate, slow, and painfully relentless long takes that force the characters trapped within them to languish in uncomfortable circumstances and proximities. The question of Lee-Curtis’s sexuality (and possibly predatory behavior) is a constantly simmering one; a protracted dialogue scene between him and a young male audio technician in an echoing basketball court uses the fact of them being alone together to seedy, excruciating effect. Every time Brown’s muscular frame leans closer to the man, the space feels charged, and questions fly in every direction: would he do it? Did he do it? Who has the power? What should we do? What should Trinitie do?
That final question is the life and soul of the film — and yet, despite its airy, fairly minimal aesthetic, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. feels like it takes quite a few church services’ worth of time to get there. Ultimately, a lot of the questions asked are fairly obvious to anyone who’s already skeptical of devout Christianity — and yet, they’re all questions that still need posing. To that end, this is a welcome step in the right direction.