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'Honk for Jesus' is an uneven but entertaining saga about scandal and redemption

Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall play a Southern Baptist pastor and his wife trying to redeem their legacy in the wake of a public scandal in<em> Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.</em>
Steve Swisher
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Pinky Promise LLC
Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall play a Southern Baptist pastor and his wife trying to redeem their legacy in the wake of a public scandal in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.

When I was a kid growing up in Orange County, I often found myself riding past the headquarters of the famous Trinity Broadcasting Network — an enormous circular building that resembled the bottom tier of a wedding cake. It was a spectacularly tacky sight, an example of the excesses of the "prosperity gospel" — the belief that extravagant wealth is a sign of God's favor. Having been raised in a modest Baptist church, I'd been taught early on to sneer at this notion and all the televangelists and other religious hucksters who upheld it.

In recent years, the movies have also taken on the prosperity gospel, sometimes with a sneer, and sometimes with a measure of sympathy. Jessica Chastain recently won an Oscar for her barbed yet heartfelt portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. And now, in the uneven but entertaining comedy Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall give wonderfully complex performances as a disgraced Christian power couple trying to salvage what remains of their spiritual empire.

Brown plays Lee-Curtis Childs, the pastor of a Black megachurch in Atlanta that, at its peak, boasted 25,000 congregants. Hall plays his steadfast wife, Trinitie Childs, who's chosen to stand by him through a humiliating scandal that drove away their flock and forced their church to close. Now, after some time away from the spotlight, the two are ready to resurrect their ministry.

Lee-Curtis hires a documentary filmmaker to follow him and Trinitie as they prepare to reopen their church on Easter Sunday. He hopes that the resulting film will paint them in a forgiving light.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. was written and directed by Adamma Ebo, who adapted it from her earlier short film of the same title. Her twin sister, Adanne Ebo, is one of the producers. We see a lot of that mock-documentary footage as it's being shot. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie lead the camera crew on a tour of their church, which features a room with gilded thrones for the pastor and his wife to sit on and a private closet filled with Lee-Curtis' expensive, colorful suits.

It's both fun and a little depressing to watch these two constantly performing in front of the cameras, but also revealing more of themselves than they realize. One minute they're praising God to the heavens, and the next they're cursing up a storm when something doesn't go their way. Trinitie learns that a rival Black church — led by a younger, hipper couple, played by the actors Conphidance and Nicole Beharie — is also planning to launch on Easter Sunday. The fate of their own reopening looks grim, especially when Trinitie keeps running into former friends who want nothing more to do with her, her husband or their church.

The two leads are terrific in these mockumentary scenes. As Lee-Curtis, Brown radiates swaggering charisma and energy, while Hall is all nervous chuckles and side glances as Trinitie tries to keep it together for the cameras. But the actors reveal even deeper emotional layers away from those cameras. One remarkably intimate moment takes place in the couple's bedroom, where we get a sense of the deep cracks in their marriage. And that's before we learn the more sordid details of Lee-Curtis' scandal.

As satire, Honk for Jesus is both blunt and broad — but then, as the movie shows us, so is the megachurch tradition it's skewering. And while Adamma Ebo certainly pokes fun at her protagonists, she never denies them their humanity. It's clear enough that a happy, redemptive ending isn't in the cards for Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, but even still, the characters find ways to keep surprising and even moving us. Hall, an outstanding dramatic actor as well as a skilled comedian, gets a doozy of a monologue in which she finally peels away her glossy exterior and unleashes a genuinely anguished cry from the heart. Trinitie Childs may not be a character you can trust, but in these moments, Hall's performance is truly something to believe in.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.