Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. (2022)

102 min. Director: Adamma Ebo. Cast: Nicole Beharie, Regina Hall, Austin Crute, Sterling K. Brown.


Writer-director-producer Adamma Ebo's feature debut Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul sneaks up on the viewer. Focused on a Southern Baptist megachurch preaching the "prosperity gospel"—and the married couple that operates it—the film at its outset seems dangerously close to being a one-note premise shooting Prada-clad fish in their barrel. Like HBO's The Righteous Gemstones, Honk for Jesus traffics in strained marriages, disruptive scandals, and endless hypocrisies, including the competitiveness between money-grubbing churches preaching the word of Jesus.

Ebo expounds upon her 2018 short film with a hybrid of mostly comical mockumentary and mostly dramatic scenes from an omniscient point of view, toggling between the two by use of shifting aspect ratios. The early scenes favor broad comedy, with the strained marriage of Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) and Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) offering plastered-on smiles for a documentary crew. Their masks often slip, with quibbles, quarrels, profanities and sundry embarrassments exposing tensions within the marriage and the church, which are hopelessly intertwined. Pressures come from without as well, from congregants, from detractors, from family, and from a younger couple's younger church that absorbs much of the Childs' congregation following a sex scandal involving Lee-Curtis.

Unfortunately, the attempts at humor tend to be too familiar or too obvious to elicit laughs. Honk for Jesus finds its soul when Ebo allows the satire to curdle into tragedy and the very real pain of its characters. Some may find this turn amounts to sympathy for the devil—after all, these self-important church leaders (they sit on thrones before their subjects; she's called "First Lady") are exploiters in the extreme, using the empire they've built to live high on the hog, enjoying creature comforts and, in the case of the pastor, abusing his power to live a secret, sexually gratifying life. Ebo acknowledges all of that while exploring the sad psychology behind it, the complex human realities of these ever-present societal sins.

Killer monologues give Hall and Brown opportunities to demonstrate their dramatic chops (to be fair, Hall again proves adept at comedy, her micro-expressions of discomfort getting us through the film's early obviousness). A handful of richly written and performed scenes give the film much needed catharsis: an opportunity to witness Lee-Curtis tiptoeing through his extramarital seduction moves, a mother-daughter scene that unearths generational trauma, a climactic confrontation between Lee-Curtis and an accuser, and Trinitie's bottled-up hurt bursting into the open as she lays into her husband, the documentary crew, and the audience itself, indicting our hungry (hangry?) need for schadenfreude. The leads' awards-worthy performances and Ebo's occasional insights into a world she knows well make Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. worth seeing through to the bitter end.