Sundance Review: Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.
The American Megachurch phenomenon almost feels as though it came into existence solely as comedic fodder. From The Righteous Gemstones to The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the rise and fall of televangelists and super-preachers is having another moment in the pop culture eye, and Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. arrives to further twist the knife via the stellar talents of Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown.
Hall and Brown play Trinitie and Lee-Curtis Childs, the leaders of a formerly successful Southern Baptist megachurch (“Wander to Greater Paths”) attempting to make a comeback from a highly publicized scandal that dwindled their congregation of thousands down to a membership of about a half dozen. They’ve hired a documentary crew to film their reopening, but the Childs’ public faces belie the marital and professional dysfunction bubbling under the surface.
This faux-documentary style is writer-director Adamma Ebo’s most striking visual gambit, as she uniquely opts not to shoot the entire film from that perspective. By shifting aspect ratios, camera movement, and lighting, it becomes clear that we’re getting two versions of the Childs: the one they’re presenting to the camera and the one that manifests in their more private moments. It’s an intriguing stylistic twist on the mockumentary technique that seemed to have mostly run its course as of late, and one that trusts the audience to pick up on the reasoning behind the changing look.
Not only does Ebo (whose twin sister and creative partner Adanne produced the film) show a keen eye as a first time director, she makes an impressive mark as a writer, crafting a character study that’s as sharp as it is hilarious. High joke density — both visual and verbal — keeps the film moving briskly, and even when the third act starts to show a few signs of wheel-spinning, Ebo utilizes the work she’s done on character development to hammer home the emotional beats right when they’re needed.
As good as the material is, however, it’s hard to argue that the endeavor isn’t elevated by the work of Brown and Hall. As a megalomaniacal preacher, Brown fully harnesses his particular blend of menace and charm to paint a portrait of a charismatic and dangerous hypocrite, while Hall once again shows why she’s one of our great multi-faceted actors — she alternates here between subtle humor, heartbreaking despair, and brilliant physical comedy, gifting us with a taste of her full range as a dramatic and comedic presence.
Given the subject matter and the intensity of the satire, what perhaps surprises most is that Honk for Jesus manages to have plenty of empathy towards those for whom a religious community remains important. Ebo and her actors never lose sight of the fact that, though organized religion can often incubate a Lee-Curtis Childs-type figure, these predatory types aren’t always representative of the regular folk who just want to be in a spiritual place on Sunday mornings — a nuance that makes for more than just another run-of-the-mill haymaker on an easy punching bag of a subject.