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REVIEW – “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” Evangelical Scandal, Made Unserious

There may always be a tightrope act in trying to lift the veil of a squeaky clean public image. The best documentaries can either do the best job to unravel every cloth fiber, or the worst. And your standard mockumentary is never exempt from this rule. Done right, it can destroy the garment beyond repair. What the Ebo Twins, Adamma and Adanne, do with their debut feature, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., could be akin to a bonfire, setting the veil ablaze with revelation and ill morality. If only its revolving point could’ve stood on clearer ground, mucky in its slant, though uncertain of where to land.

The impending flame does shine bright in director Adamma’s grip, following up from her 2017 proof of concept short, going full Spinal Tap on a story otherwise destined for cold, unreaching drama in any other medium. Most other tales touching on organized religion and their modern subculture do have a tendency to dive dark, play like horror. With the Ebos, they seek the humor out of personal experience growing up within the Atlanta megachurch scene. Their focus lies on the fictional Wander to Greater Paths, a Baptist church once considered the big attraction, now a stain of bad luck. Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) had done what they could to steer through controversy, rumors of infidelity and misconduct, and financial mismanagement. Settled out of court, the pair now look to reopen on Easter Sunday, welcoming back at least a fraction of the 25,000 congregants they once could lure

It’s an awkward line the pair are walking, stepping away from unwarranted attention, only for Lee-Curtis to look for added publicity, hiring a documentary crew to capture their every move, rebuilding from the ground up, self-promoting, and batting away the offensive from crosstown rival pastors Keon (Uchenna “Conphidance” Echeazu) and Shakura Sumpter (Nicole Beharie) of Heaven’s House, jockeying for their launch on the same date. Keeping a straight face and a positive PR spin for the cameras is already one turmoil on their shoulders, maintaining the placid solitude of their marriage might be another. These silent documentarians find gold in the Childs’ insecurity, Ebo mining it deeper whenever the perspective shifts.

It’s rather a smart move, changing aspect ratios as a pivot into the Childs’ deeper insecurities, private lives well masked by their smiles, brighter colors, and Prada-emphasized wardrobe. Ebo confides so effortlessly with cinematographer Alan Gwizdowski (The Block Island Sound) and costume designer Lorraine Coppin (A Dark Place) to cover both worlds as they were one singular source of strife and conceit. Though even that can only stay effective for so long. The flurry of emotion between the Childs’ as entertainers first, civilians second eventually drown whatever manner of clarity is to be unearthed.

Ebo does needlessly overlook the sharpness of what’s being satirized, dusting lightly on the atmosphere, the culture, the mere community both pastors are desperate to win back – all but a very lean group bare their politest passive-aggressive stance out of absent conviction. I might’ve loved more context on the megachurch movement, how it canters so carefully to capture glamour and opulence without shying on faith. Its competitive throat jabbing is at least well in hand with Echeazu and Beharie, tiptoeing in an opposite direction. The perspective of outgoing Lee-Curtis and timid Trinitie, overflowing in confidence to hide their separate shames, often at odds with each other, that’s what could not stay distinctive to me. There may be two different lenses capturing their actions. But this wasn’t anything like The Eyes of Tammy Faye, where public perception and behind the scenes drama proceeded with some separation, only converging in the end. Here, everyone’s swept up in the same mess, captured from opposing views, but never too far away from one another. In turn, the story feels a tad bloated, belaboring the end goal and eventually souring its dirty laundry climax.

Multiple incomplete ideas plague this otherwise straightforward spin on the typical mockumentary. One that embraces the careful-minded panache of Christopher Guest, readapting the rulebook, but stops short of mimicking his tricks. Ebo has clearly done their homework, forging her own trail for the subgenre with a newfound eye for the ironic. Most of that heavy lifting is handled with a gracious ebullience between both Brown and Hall, commanding the screen in guises effectively dodging past their typical screen norm.

Brown, fresh off his stint on This is Us, nimbly absorbs the brooding deceit of any true man of power like it were his side hustle away from acting. Overseeing authority with a faltered ego must be effectively convinced, Brown swaggers along with that concept. And with almost the same energy as sharing a gangster rap with Hall. Their chemistry is very locked in, but she never misses a moment to pull the rug over her on-screen spouse, conveying equal umbrage and solemnity, keeping the peace and knowing just when to raise the red flag.

Ebo’s tale does come off rather incomplete, all told. There are a few deeper nuggets to be found, tackling the more provoking aspects of Lee-Curtis’s dark side, and the pitfalls of religious subculture. The issue lands on an inability to lock onto where the story thrives best, instead chasing the nascent thrill of laughter, stress, or dissension. Simple emotions over a complex theme, not quite the effective manner to conquer a story so heady. Through both Hall and Brown sustaining the weight of their situation, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul can succeed on the real-world consequence, Ebo’s voice satisfying its sense of parody. The lampoon is pacified, its myriad moods slow to escape the gate. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up)

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. opens day-and-date in theaters and on Peacock September 2; rated R for language and some sexual content; 102 minutes.