Early on in “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.”, the feature debut from writer/director Adamma Ebo, there is a moment that perfectly encapsulates the film’s entire deal.
Disgraced pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) are preparing for the grand reopening of their megachurch after the former has been embroiled in a nebulously defined scandal. They’re running what can be charitably described as a dress rehearsal with a handful of their closest followers, one of whom has brought their pre-teen daughter Aria (Selah Kimbro Jones.) Because the film is partially a film crew documenting the planned comeback story, it switches between “The Office” style mockumentary tics and a more probing, cinematic approach. After the gathered parishioners, Aria among them, appear to be swept up in the fervor of Lee-Curtis’ words, the film cuts to her breaking the fourth wall, doing her best Jim Halpert impression and mugging for the camera.
“I just love the theater,” she says. A pointed punchline deflating the mannered artifice this brand of church requires to function.
“Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul” is at its best in these little moments. As a satire, it’s a little too broad and, well, obvious, to be particularly effective. There’s definitely a fair amount of sharp comedy to be made from the inherent hypocrisy and disingenuous tenor of Lee-Curtis (and his many peers) perverting the word of God for the accumulation of material wealth. Brown relishes the fineries his work affords him, showcased best when showing off his kaleidoscopic closet full of garish, eye-searing suits while saying phrases like “periwinkle Prada” with the same reverence he employs for the actual bible.
But in exploring the nuance of observed cultural specificity, Ebo proves adept at capturing all the rich details that make up the very real world she seems to be skewering. Trinitie has a chance encounter with a former member of their ministry at the mall, where the two women communicate solely in withering pleasantries, each doing their part to uphold church kayfabe despite the mounting condescension and bitterness between the two. They inhabit a world that is little more than a complex web of keeping up appearances, of faking it until you make it feel real enough to be gospel.
The film gets muddled in preserving the mystery of what led to Lee-Curtis’ “canceling” long enough to make it feel like the main event, when it’s too blunt and shallow a subplot to have much actual meaning. Ebo adapted this film from her own short of the same name, and at feature length, it regularly feels like a thimble full of wine diluted in a goblet full of holy water. At first taste, you can sense what is at play, but then the resulting runtime does little to nothing to build on those ideas and themes.
At one point, Lee-Curtis, one of Brown’s most unhinged and memorable turns, compares the church’s journey to that of Rocky Balboa’s, leading Trinitie, a beleaguered and put upon Hall, to remind him that Rocky loses at the end of that movie. But, as he responds, Rocky did win in “Rocky II,” and that the first film is all set-up for that eventual victory. It’s a great and telling character moment for a man whose faith in himself and his greatness traverses the vast field of delusion, but it also sums up “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.”
It is a film that doesn’t scratch deep enough beneath the surface of its straightforward framing of Black church culture as being so plagued by corruption, fiction and exploitation as to be more harmful than the sin it seeks to battle. When the film shifts its tone mid-way through to be more serious and heavy, it loses the plot, flailing in every direction in search of a meaningful conclusion. Unfortunately, it doesn’t find one.
With any two leads lesser in pure artistic fire than Brown and Hall, this would be a very missable proposition, but as it stands, even what doesn’t work is worth experiencing just to watch these two generational talents bounce off of one another, weak script be damned.
Perhaps the best way to view “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul” is a mobius strip about failure. Within the work of another confounding Christian Capitalist, Kanye West’s DONDA album, he has a song called “New Again,” where he raps “I repent for everything that I’ma do again.” This is a movie about someone who can’t stop making the same mistakes, and who has erected an institution around him that makes change not only unnecessary, but kind of a silly and naive hope.
Relevant? Sure. Illuminating? Not so much.
“Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is currently screening at The Senator Theatre and is available to stream on Peacock.