‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul’ review: Sharp edged satire

There is a moment in the Ebo sisters’ comedy-satire “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” when the charismatic Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs, flanked on the pulpit by ornate his and hers thrones, declares to his congregation, “I am the prophet with the gorgeous wife and the beautiful Bugatti.” Rendered in the standard lower-resolution format that televised evangelical programming is known for, it’s a scene that wholly captures the crooked conflation of the materially aspirational and spiritual within the culture of Southern Baptist megachurches.

Lee-Curtis (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife, first lady Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall), are the picture-perfect image of both marital devotion and (supposedly) blessed wealth. Their capital lies not only in the tithes given by their 26,000 congregants or in the walls of brightly colored designer clothing that line the many rooms of their church, Atlanta’s Wander to Great Paths, but also in the promise of Black Christian love and success that their pairing evokes. This is why — after revelation of the closeted pastor’s sex scandal — their downfall is so utterly world-undoing.

In an attempt to rehabilitate their tainted image (as well as usher in the reopening of their church after the mass exodus of previously devoted congregants), the Childs welcome a documentary crew into their lives.

As pastor, Lee-Curtis presents himself as an almost irresistibly assured leader to his flock, currently missing or otherwise, while Trinitie works the defensive, not only supporting her husband in the role of dutiful wife in the public eye but also by managing their image behind the scenes, the impact of which lies somewhere between celebrity obsession and religious worship.

It takes only one day of filming for the Childs to reckon with the fact that they will be unable to fully shape and choreograph their narratives as they are so used to, and that fissure widens throughout “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” The debut feature of identical twins Adamma, the writer-director, and Adanne Ebo, the producer, is assured in its critique of the cult of personality and prosperity gospel that permeates the Southern evangelical community.

It is a pointed satire that could come only from those who have lived it themselves, who understand the subtleties of language and gesture that govern these spaces (“Bless your soul”). There is an experiential vocabulary at work here, whether the age appropriateness of certain church hats, wilding out in the car to Crime Mob or talking smack on call-in radio shows. The film refuses didacticism, offering instead the proverb: If you know, you know.

This welcomingly self-referential way of world-making announces itself from the opening needle drop of Three 6 Mafia’s “Poppin’ My Collar.”

Regina Hall in "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul."

Regina Hall in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

(Steve Swisher / Focus)

Immaculate too are the characters that screenwriter Adamma Ebo shapes. Lee-Curtis, with his perfect physique, commanding presence and suave persona, is nonetheless rotting from the inside out. He is a narcissist of the highest order, so commanded by God, and the perpetual victim of the devil and his naysayers, rather than of the repercussions of his own actions. He is tortured not because of his barely repressed desires, but because he simply cannot help himself. He twists Scripture to enable his behavior while weaponizing it against those who dare to stand against him; in Lee-Curtis’ own delusional imagining, he is not just Christ-like, he is Christ reborn.

He is the perfect foil to Trinitie, whose sacrifices for the supposed good of both their marriage and church reach a pinnacle in the film’s final moments. Where Lee-Curtis is untethered from the reality of his own doings, Trinitie — however complicit she may be in many of them — bears the weight of his indignities, culminating in an irreversible fracture of the image she has worked so hard to maintain.

The loose mockumentary format of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” offers Hall a chance to showcase her well-established comedic chops throughout its agile runtime, but its final chapter gives her space to realize a career-best dramatic performance as effective as a raw nerve.

The film’s commitment to this kind of interiority instills it with a humanity that might otherwise be subsumed by the more thick-skinned critique of the many lost souls we see onscreen. There’s an awareness of the power dynamics at play but also a willingness to allow the characters the autonomy to interrogate those who have played a hand in shaping them.

A first feature that is fresh as it is concise, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” presents a toothy vision of evangelical life without losing sight of the feeling that remains when the facade of it all finally falls.

‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.’

Rated: R, for language and some sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 2 in general release; also streaming on Peacock

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