Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul Review: Regina Hall Is Sensational In This Incisive Satire

The Childs family is on top of the world. Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) runs the Wander to Great Paths Southern Baptist megachurch alongside his wife, "first lady" Trinitie (Regina Hall). They regularly draw massive crowds of congregants that rival music arena tours and the pair live in a house so enormous it makes regular mansions look like studio apartments. The two of them are always immaculately dressed, with only the finest designer brands earning a spot in their cavernous closets. They're so well known that they're practically local celebrities, beloved by everyone around them as they spread the gospel to their countless devotees.

Or at least they were. An enormous scandal involving Pastor Lee-Curtis has shaken the Childs family and their megachurch to its foundations, forcing them to close up at the peak of their success. It's left them facing a nightmare scenario with nobody left to preach to — or even worse, the threat of a far less extravagant lifestyle. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie aren't quitters though, and they're going to remain in the spotlight the only way they know how — by staging a big comeback. Come Easter, they'll be back bigger and better than ever before, in hopes that their congregants will return to reclaim the glory they once knew.

You're probably not surprised that two people of such immense wealth and influence in their community do things a little differently. Lee-Curtis has something of a chip on his shoulder and has hired a documentary crew to film the couple preparing for their big comeback to the Wander to Greater Paths ministry. The scandal itself is kept ambiguous for most of the film, described in the media as "sexual misconduct," and it slowly eats away at the couple during the film, and while there are plenty of hints along the way, the true nature isn't revealed until far later.

"Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." marks the directorial debut of Adamma Ebo, who also wrote the screenplay.  Adapted from a short film, also written and directed by Ebo, it uses a mockumentary style format to explore the Childs family comeback in all its glitz, glamor, and tribulations. The feature version also uses this mockumentary style, but moving from short to feature-length allows Ebo to become more audacious (especially for a debut), letting us see Trinitie and Lee-Curtis both in a mockumentary and outside of it. This dichotomy between mockumentary and a behind-the-scenes look at the couple and those around them allows the film to function both as a punchy satire and an intimate character study.

A satire that understands its roots

"Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." is billed as a satirical comedy, and it delivers both of those elements heavily and successfully throughout. Any sort of film about religion, especially seen in a comedic light, is likely to spark controversy, but "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." never feels mean-spirited. That's because Ebo draws from her own experience growing up as a Southern Baptist and while the satire is incisive, it never feels mean-spirited. The film doesn't appear to be interested in creating any sort of takedown of organized religion — rather, it's interested in the hypocritical elements of faith and the idea of performance when it comes to preaching.

As someone unfamiliar with the Southern Baptist religion but who has grappled with ideas of faith and religion, I found "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." a rewarding experience. It's clear that Ebo has an in-depth understanding not only of religious practices but more importantly, the surrounding community. After all, what is religion without community?

While the comedy makes way for a more understated character drama, there are some brilliantly funny moments in "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." One comes during a scene in church where a young girl, Aria (Selah Kimbro Jones), is cleansed by the Pastor, and the group breaks out in song dance, with the girl and pastor so moved by the holy spirit that they start speaking in tongues. The camera cuts to Arial in a talking head interview, stating: "I love the theatre." It's a terrific moment that showcases how different everyone's reactions to the same thing can be — while some of the people appear genuinely moved and transformed, Aria is just enjoying a chance to have fun and join in the theatrics

Another fantastic scene happens at a shopping mall where Trinitie is looking for a new church hat. She runs into Sister Denetta (Olivia D. Dawson) whom the mockumentary's on-screen text tells us is a congregant of the church. The two speak to each other with beaming smiles, but you can tell that there's some serious tension between two women, and they even exchange the savage southern burn "bless your heart." When Trinitie claims that Denetta is no longer a member of her church (she's jumped ship to a competing congregation), the on-screen text appears, changing the initial assessment of "congregant" to "former congregant." It's a hilarious moment that finds Ebo playing with cinematic form to great comedic effect, all while highlighting the way that people keen to avoid conflict speak to one another, just about managing to harbor their resentments towards one another.

Regina Hall delivers a powerful performance

While "Honk For Jesus" is advertised as a satirical comedy, it comes across as more of a character study. And for a character study to really work, you need a great character — and a performer who's up for the challenge. Regina Hall is no stranger to great performances — she's sublime in "Support the Girls" and a total delight in "Girls Trip," but "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." is her best work yet.

Trinitie is often shot in uncompromising close-ups, the documentary-style camera slowly zooming in on her face whenever she's uncomfortable — and Trinitie is very often uncomfortable. It makes perfect sense for the tremendous pressure she's under, trying to maintain her marriage to a man everyone says has done horrible things. She deals with the fallout of being one of the most beloved people in town to something of a social pariah with incredible grace and decorum, even if she sometimes appears ready to fight (like her showdown with Sister Denetta).

Hall is fully committed to this surprising and fearless performance. Figuring out Trinitie is where the riches of "Honk for Jesus. Save your Soul." are found. She's got an awful lot on her plate, and watching her masterfully balance it all is thrilling. The touch of including both the mockumentary footage and the unfilmed moments of Trinitie's life allow us to see her as a fully realized character but also as someone desperate to please. It's clear that Trinitie isn't involved in a megachurch solely for profit's sake — though she fully partakes in the glamor of immense wealth. Her beliefs and faith are genuine and unshakable, despite attempts to break down her hardened beliefs. It's a beautiful, conflicted performance of a woman clearly at odds with her husband, but desperate to keep her relationship intact as its the comfortable, familiar life she knows.

As preacher Lee-Curtis, Sterling K. Brown is commanding. It's easy to believe that Brown's character runs a megachurch, and Lee-Curtis' personality when being filmed and away from the cameras is nearly identical. It's clear he's extremely committed to redeeming himself. There's a power to Brown's cadence that makes you fall hook line and sinker for every word he utters, and he's an inspired choice for the role. His storyline is disappointing, especially in comparison to the richness of Trinitie's struggles. A pastor caught in a scandal is nothing new, and even the nature of the scandal has been seen time and time again. That's not to say it's not handled well — it is — but it's a shame that Trinitie's journey is so much more exciting than her counterpart, as the film seems to be more invested in the church re-opening rather than the real meat of the story in Trinitie's self-exploration.

Still, there's a lot of excitement to be found in "Honk for Jesus. Save your Soul." It's respectful in its satire, and its desire to make real concrete points about organized religion and community is far more effective than just poking fun for the sake of it. It's a story that feels equal parts ludicrous and lived-in, and it's a promising debut for Ebo, and I hope we'll be hearing plenty more from her in the future. If you're still looking for evidence that Regina Hall is one of our finest working actors, look no further.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10