- Movie Rating -

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul (2022)

| September 2, 2022

In recent days, I’ve been reading Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” a gossipy chronicle of the 70s auteur era that brought about a decade of personal filmmaking to a Hollywood couched in reliable formulas.  The era would bring about a tapestry of great films like Easy Rider, MASH, Five Easy PiecesChinatown and The Last Picture Show, films that reflected the uneasy feeling of the youth culture.  They were films about real people, in the real world, often disillusioned by the world around them and facing the ire of an older generation that had ceased to listen to them.

It sounds strange, but I have a feeling that Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul might have fit right in.  Not in terms of quality but in terms of its tone.  It too is dark, disturbing, unexpected; it begins as a satirical comedy and quickly devolves into a melodrama that ends on a note that offers little-to-no hope for its protagonists but leaves you with a lot to think about.  If those films were indicative of the post-Vietnam stress, then certainly this movie is indicative of the nervous state of Cancel Culture, when personal sins can bring down (or cancel) an empire, when there appears to be no hope for redemption in the face of disgrace in the court of public opinion.

Writer-director Adamma Ebo wants to give us a film with something to say not just about the state of cancelling but also the hypocrisy of Megachurch culture and its multimillion dollar power structure.   To get there she begins her film as a Best in Show-style comedy and then steers the material into darker territory.  For those who aren’t scared away by the melodrama, this film elicits long discussions afterward.

The film follows Pastor Lee Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife Triniti (Regina Hall), leaders of the Wander to Greater Paths Megachurch, a Yay-God industrial complex that has taken all-too-seriously the instruction from Proverbs 22:4 that true humility will “lead to riches, honor and long life.”  While they rally their massive congregation with promises of riches and greater glory from the power of Lord, they themselves bask in the Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous.  An opening scene shows us their living space: their mansion, their pool, their fancy cars (complete with a bauble hanging from the rearview mirror that reminds them to “Be Humble.”)

Currently, however, things are different.  Once revered in their Georgia community by a ravenous congregation of 25,000 strong, the numbers have dwindled down to 5 or 6 hardbound loyalist.  The rest fled in the wake of an ugly #metoo-style scandal that made headlines and is threatening to ruin them.  The narrative is structured as the making of a documentary that is meant to chronicle their rise from the ashes and back to former glory – God’s glory.  The details of that scandal are revealed to us slowly, piece by piece and each time we get a piece of information, we realize that it is worse that we suspected.  Lee Curtis has done something horrible and, for a long while, we can only speculate through he and Triniti’s body language.  In the light of the camera, he is confident and bold in his assertion that he is a sinner who has seen the light.  Triniti knows that the road to redemption isn’t going to be as easy as he thinks.  

The tribulations of this couple and their crumbling empire are shifted back and forth between the footage that the unseen film crew are recording for the documentary and the off-camera stuff that show us what is happening in their lives that they don’t want to public to see.  While Lee Curtis yowls about redemption and recovery of his soul in the wake of the scandal, Triniti knows its just another performance, that it is going to take more than just flashy words and crocodile tears to overcome the ugliness of their situation.  In one brilliant scene, he practices his confessional before an empty sanctuary, pouring his heart out with genuine feeling before Triniti brings his ego back down to Earth.

Their goal is to reopen the church and welcome back their congregation on Easter Sunday just a few months away, but that plan is put in jeopardy with the news that a rival church will open its doors on the exact same day.  Flailing to get things up and running before they lose what few parishioners they might have had, Lee Curtis gets the idea rush the opening to the end of the week.

What comes of this is not only a pathetic attempt to save Wandering to Greater Paths but also stress in the union between Lee Curtis and Triniti.  This movie would be nothing without the performances by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall who form a union that, given how they are introduced, might be bound in material abundance, but as we get to know them, we can see that they are drawn together by something else – by a fierce and stubborn loyalty to each other.  Hall, in particular, is brilliant here often having to waffle between scenes of comic discomfort and serious drama.  She has an expressive face that imparts much of what she is thinking and feeling even when she isn’t speaking.

Brown is just as good, I think, as a prideful man with the flash and bellowing salesmanship of a used car salesman but also a haunted soul who never seems personally sorry for whatever has brought him down but always looking for a ray of hope, that this whole mess can be cleared up by an act of simple forgiveness.  He’s a con artist whose bag of tricks have all been used up, and who has been revealed for the hollow soul that he really is.  This one shot at redemption is his ticket out of the shadow of disgrace, but even he knows that it’s simply impossible.

Surrounding Trinity and Lee Curtis are a terrific gaggle of supporting players, particularly the rival couple whose church is about to open.  Pastor Keon (Conphidance) and Shakura Sumpter (Nicole Beharie) are beautiful, young and quietly overjoyed to be able to steal the Easter Sunday opening away from the Childs – they are also seemingly unaware that they themselves are not immune to such a scandal.  We also meet the few remaining parishioners who aren’t so much loyal to the church as they simply haven’t really given a thought to the idea that they could simply go somewhere else.  Floating through the failed attempts at the chronical of the Childs’ triumphant return are the inevitable run-ins with people that they would not want on camera including a run-in with a former member of the church that shows the subtle ways in which a Southern woman replaces “bitch” with “bless your heart.”  Or an uncomfortable run-in with a woman on the street who has heard all the filthy details of the Pastor’s disgrace and is more than happy to return them back to Trinity.

I like all of this, especially the details of Lee Curtis and Triniti’s struggling marriage.  Brown and Hall have such brilliant chemistry that, despite the scandal and the excess, we come to care about them.  I only wish that the Ebo had mixed in a bit more of the comedy.  It’s mostly front-loaded at the beginning and then quickly dwindles out as the details of the scandal become clearer.  This becomes a melodrama based on characters that loses its comic edge as the movie drifts into its second half – much of which gets really uncomfortable.  Still, I appreciated her technique.  I appreciated that allows scenes to go on longer than we might expect (which plays to the nature of a documentary).  I appreciated that she had something to say, and wasn’t just pushing forward a dull shenanigans comedy.  I appreciated her as an auteur.  I appreciated her making the movie that she wanted to make.  I just wish there was bit more levity to get me more involved.

[now in theaters and Peacock with subscription]

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy