The mockumentary form is one that can work with any genre. While it has existed for a long time, it blew-up in the early 2000s thanks to sitcoms like The Office. Though it is probably seen the most in comedy, it can be done successfully for anything, so long as the style is a fit for the story being told. The dramedy Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. features a pair of very good performances and some okay commentary on a couple trying to keep up appearances following a very public scandal. Sadly, far too often, the style prevents the substance from coming through.
Since the story is about a couple desperate to convince people that everything is just fine, their true selves would be hidden as much as possible. Writer/director Adamma Ebo wanted audiences to get the whole picture on her subjects, so she bounces between documentary and the style more common for fiction, to show what they are like when the cameras aren’t rolling. The result is both confusing (the constant changes are assumed rather than made narratively clear, though there is a distracting aspect ratio switch to signify it) and kind of a cheat.
It allows the filmmakers to expose the fears/anxieties behind the façade, yet it doesn’t exploit that ability in a way that brings insight. The omniscient camera scenes are largely used for cheap-shots about the hypocrisy of a man who doesn’t practice what he literally preaches. In the end, whenever it switches to mockumentary, it feels like it is pushing the viewer away, while the other direction makes the satire a little too easy. The format doesn’t really help with the story or the satire; it tends to hold the movie back from diving into anything truly meaningful.
Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs and his wife, First Lady Trinitie Childs, ran an incredibly popular megachurch, until the Pastor was accused of sexual misconduct. Now, with the scandal seemingly behind them, he has hired a film crew to document his preparations for a huge Easter Sunday reopening.
The advertisements for Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. (97 minutes without the end credits) position it as an outrageous comedy. There definitely is a lot of humor, but it is subtle and understated. The handful of more absurd moments (which are highlighted in the trailer) aren’t edited in a way that maximizes their comedy. The characters are shot in close-up, so we can see how sad they actually are. That is not a criticism. Obviously, Adamma Ebo wanted the Childs to mock themselves, using passive-aggression and delusions of grandeur to show the lengths they will go to sell their fiction to the world. That only sporadically lands.
The movie certainly doesn’t have sympathy for Pastor Lee-Curtis, and the screenplay does a good enough job of focusing on his ego and lack of humility as sources of ridicule, as opposed to the larger issues he is struggling with. However, it also doesn’t add much about a crooked man of the church using his supposed connection to God to take advantage of his congregation that hasn’t already been explored elsewhere.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is a decent idea whose execution makes it an unfortunate miss. That said, it is still difficult to recommend avoiding it due to the fantastic starring performances from Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall.
Brown is powerful and never less than convincing as a man who absolutely believes he can simply walk his way back to popularity, allowing him to maintain the lavish lifestyle he flaunts from the pulpit, because that is what he deserves. Brown gives us glimpses of the anger boiling just underneath the surface, bubbling up whenever things don’t go the way he knows in his heart that they should. He makes the most of his character’s physical humor, nailing a couple of gags the editing doesn’t necessarily give enough room to breathe. He is so good that it is eventually a letdown when the movie doesn’t know how to handle his climactic emotional moments.
As strong as his performance is, this production belongs to Regina Hall as Trinitie. She is genuinely funny forcing a smile in the face of her husband’s ridiculous decisions and genuinely touching when she has to confront whether or not it is worth staying married to the Pastor. A woman who finds it easier to keep the life she enjoys, even if it means being loyal to a husband who humiliated her, than leaving him and giving up everything she helped him earn, is a pretty easy target. The movie gives Trinitie the space to consider the price of the sacrifices she is making on her own, instead of turning her into the joke. Hall makes this character real and sympathetic, giving her the biggest laughs and all the dramatic highpoints. It is a wonderful, awards-caliber performance.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. may not be a good movie; its tones and styles are too awkwardly combined to make it consistently entertaining. But it is always interesting to see talented actors rise above their material to do great work. What Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall accomplish here is worth watching.
3 out of 5
Cast: Sterling K. Brown as Lee-Curtis Childs
Regina Hall as Trinitie Childs
Nicole Beharie as Shakura Sumpter
Conphidance as Keon Sumpter
Written and Directed by Adamma Ebo