“You’ve got to be strong to be a First Lady.” That’s a line stated by Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) early on in Adamma Ebo’s feature debut (which she co-produced with her twin sister Adanne), Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, that resonates throughout every moment we spend with her. She is the wife of a predominant Baptist pastor, Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), and their mega church, Wander To Greater Paths, is in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia, with a predominantly African American congregation. Within the opening minutes of the film, we see footage of the 25,000 members of their church gathering to hear Lee-Curtis’s sermons, while Trinitie proudly looks on. They’ve built a connection and trust with the community for over nine years, which is why when allegations of sexual misconduct about Lee-Curtis were made public, the couple had no choice to go into hiding and shut down their church until these allegations were either handled in court or settled. Not completely unlike the what befell 1980s evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and turned into a 2021 film starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield.
Our story picks up a month before Trinitie and Lee-Curtis are planning a grand reopening of their church, following his pending settlement with the victims. It is where we see two sides of the filmmaking on display from Ebo, in that most of the film is shot in a single camera, faux-documentary style, as the couple in the film have hired a team of local filmmakers to document Lee-Curtis’s rise back to the top and the journey he has gone on to repent and return to his previous life. When those cameras are off, and we aren’t the church or following the pastor and his wife around the community, their private moments are shot as a normal narrative feature, thus we blear the lines throughout the film what is real and what is a show being put on by a desperate man and the woman standing by him.
Thought they think it might be easy to turn the switch back on and gain the trust back from everyone, their congregation is divided, with some heading to a different church in the area, run by a younger, opportunistic couple played by Conphidance and Nicole Beharie. Though not in the film for much of the 102-minute runtime, both portray the sharp smiling faces that are involved in churches like this, who will stab you in the back to move up the latter. It is a dog-eat-dog business to get as many souls to save, which is why they decide to open a second location on Easter Sunday to rival Wander To Greater Paths’s reopening. As time starts to tick, the Childs family must pull out every stop in the book, as well as do some more self-reflecting, to ensure that they get back to the top of the mountain.
While they are trying to get everything back up and running, we learn a lot about who the Childs are, thus putting us in a tricky situation as an audience to figure out whether we want to root for or against their church, and power, resurrection. They are deeply flawed people, as Lee-Curtis actions against adult male members of the community has led to serious harm to the congregation and his marriage. Though we hear on the local radio station the conversation surrounding Lee-Curtis as someone who has done a lot of good, with many believing he couldn’t possible have done what he is being accused of, is it clear in the honest segments of the movie, when the documentary is going on, that he abused his power, and is choosing to him who he really is, creating massive internal conflict to keep his faith and sexuality separate as he tries to create his second chance. Credit Sterling K Brown’s commitment to portraying this methodical, broken pastor, as he uses his charismatic presence he’s known for as a performer and uses it as a weapon to all he encounters, while displaying the regret he has made in his transgressions. Ultimately, he is selfish and thus the audience clings to Trinitie as the real hero of this story.
Blindsided by her world being turned upside down, Trinitie tries to move forward with any plan to get back to her previous life. She denigrates herself on a routine basis, all the while knowing the harm her husband has done to her and others, therefore, she keeps it all at bay. But every time she tried to move forward, she takes a step back with conversations she has with former members of her church, to the looks people give her when she passes by. Most of the community don’t understand why she stuck by her husband, which she even questions herself periodically throughout the film after every backhanded interaction she has with Lee-Curtis in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.
Hall’s performance is the key to this story’s success, and while narratively, events and plot beats seem all too familiar, she elevates what is on the page to someone who is a ticking time bomb, ready to explode with her frustrations at Lee-Curtis, the documentary crew, people on the street who harass her for stick by her husband. By the end of the film, after one last act of humiliating artistry to get people to come to the church, she gives it to everyone, and gains self-confidence and the ability to render her own path in life. Hall, mostly known for her comedic performances, shows in this and in the other 2022 Sundance title Master, that she has the dramatic chops to go to battle against anyone on screen alongside, thus become the highlight of the festival from an acting standpoint.
Beyond these two performances, and the changing directorial aspects, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul is a pretty standard Sundance debut that could’ve used something else to go deeper into the problems of mega churches and their effects on the world at large. Instead, it primarily keeps it focused on these two characters and their chaotic headspace, and that alone is enough to justify its existence. But this is a case where it’s a fine first effort Ebo and shows the potential to deliver something special down the road.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute