Even right down to the title this religious comedy debuting appropriately today on a Sunday in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Is it Honk For Jesus.? Or is it Save Your Soul.? OR is it as the credits say both? It is a indication of the main problem with this self-styled satire on scandal-ridden Southern Baptist megachurches. Is it supposed to be a comedy? Or is it aiming to be something deeper and more dramatic? Or is it both? Even for the best of satirists trying to keep an even tone without watching the whole souffle fall is a slippery slope, one that writer/director Adamma Ebo hasn’t quite solved, but not for lack of trying. As many have discovered, drama is easy, comedy is hard.
This feature filmmaking debut from Ebo who is part of a pair of American Nigerian twins who partner together on film and tv projects (sister Adanne is a producer on this outing) comes from a personal place for its director who grew up in Atlanta questioning the ethics and authenticity of the megachurch she attended as a young churchgoer. When scandal erupted and the pastor was accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with some of the young male parishoners, the ultimately forgiving and somewhat non-plussed reaction from the church faithful was of great concern to Ebo, further fueling her disaffection with organized money-driven religion to this day. In a search for answers it has inspired this satirical take in which the devoted wife of a pastor caught up in a scandal that threatens their entire enterprise must come to terms with her religion, her once thrving megachurch business, and her marriage during a period when they have been forced to shutter and now are two weeks away from attempting a comeback. Actually the idea began life as a short a few years called Honk For Jesus (should have kept the title to just that) and now morphed into a full feature. There is no question the filmmaker is on to something here, and she does show promise as a director to be sure, but this is an uneven affair.
Regina Hall plays Trinite Childs, that wife and co-proprietor of the Wander To Greater Paths, a Southern Baptist megachurch which had a strong connection to the Black community with well over 20,000 attending but now is in crisis mode. Sterling K. Brown plays Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs, the man who gets caught up in that scandal and is trying to weasel his way out of it, even as the pair face stiff competition from another couple, the Sumpters (Nicole Behari and Conphidance) who aim to reap the rewards of the Childs’ downfall and build their own church at an opportune time.
Employing a faux documentary -aka mockumentary style to anchor the story structure (the Childs hire a crew to help put a media spin on it all), the characters in Ebo’s script seem to always be talking to this mostly unseen television crew explaining what they are going through at any given moment. It is a filmmaking device to be sure, an expositionary crutch overused throughout. Is the camera always there, or just popping up when it is convenient?
From the beginning Hall and Brown gamely try to manage the comical elements with mixed results. Whether dropping in a scene as the couple lyp synch wildly to a rap song that is anything the ideal of music heard in their church, or a running gag where they step in sticky substances in front of their empty church, much of the comedy seems shoehorned in, as does a superfluous sex scene thrown into the mix. Still Ebo is fortunate to have actors on the level of Hall and Brown who lift the material whenever they can.
Ebo does serve up large dramatic opportunities later on when Trinitie starts questioning everything, going personally into deeper darker places as she renounces the whole enterprise and her own relationship with her husband as the onscreen graphics keep signaling the reopening timeline of their church. Ultimately the film’s title also comes into focus as the couple’s desperation leads them to the highway trying to promote their comeback by imploring passing cars to ‘Honk For Jesus’ (which was the main thrust of the short), even at one point where Trinitie, resorting to some specific church customs, even goes the extra mile putting white mime makeup on her face to lure customers. Whether any of this desperation will be successful in resusitating their livelihood and their own relationship is what Ebo builds the film’s suspense factor upon.
Earlier this awards season a true story of a similar kind of downfall of a megachurch marriage The Eyes Of Tammy Faye hit screens, and perhaps because it was based on a well known couple and their travails it seemed more successful in reminding us of the absurdity of this kind of religious con job, huge profits in the name of Jesus. Taking it to the Black community and showing the problem seemingly exists everywhere in the faith based sphere is the refreshing new angle we get with Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., but being a fictional take I just wish it stayed wholly in the satirical lane it intended to travel. It is a rich area to explore in comedy. The idea of blind faith, even in obvious hucksters who rake in the cash from the unquestioning flock, has real pertinence in the Trump era on several levels, not just religion, but this admirable if flawed attempt deserves our praise for the effort, but only partially gets us to the altar.
In addition to the Ebo sisters, as well as Brown and Hall, producers are Daniel Kaluuya, Rowan Riley, Amanda Crichlow, Kara Durrett, and Jesse Burgum.
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