Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. may sound like a faith-based film, but don’t worry—it’s not here to preach! It’s a mockumentary/comedy-drama about a megachurch pastor and his wife staging a comeback after a scandal rocks and sinks their church. In other words, it’s a chronically timely film: there’s always some megachurch pastor getting into trouble out there. At the time of writing, it’s Matt Chandler; months from now, it’ll hopefully be Joel Osteen.

The pastor of Honk for Jesus has more in common with the latter. Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) is a shameless champion of prosperity gospel, the belief that obedience to Jesus leads to vast material wealth. He’s got the whole world in his hands: fancy cars, designer outfits, his face plastered all over a sermon series, and a beautiful, servile wife whom he shows off on stage like human décor. Even in the wake of his scandal—the details of which the film reveals gradually—his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) sticks by his side, but she’s a little nonplussed at Lee-Curtis letting a documentary team cover his comeback. Where he sees another hit, Trinitie sees a hit piece.

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When we’re not looking through the team’s dubitably judgmental lenses, the film transitions to the Childs’ behind-the-scenes lives, signaled by a change in aspect ratio and an extra degree of Hollywood sheen. This dual format serves a double purpose: it offers insight into the Childs’ true selves, but by only showing snippets before retreating to mockumentary, it also keeps them compellingly inscrutable. The little we see of their private lives hints that they’re putting on personas for their congregants, but we don’t see how deep that persona goes. They’re driven primarily by prosperity, but is the gospel nagging at their conscience or totally irrelevant to them? Writer/director Adamma Ebo gives us just enough to keep that question dynamic. It’s a smart, interesting way to build character tension.

At least in theory. In practice, the shrewdly restrained revelations start to spin their wheels. The same suggestions are made repeatedly, each time to lesser degrees of subtlety: Lee-Childs is a worse, less repentant man than he seems on the surface; Trinitie isn’t innocent but faces real pressures and doubts. The question of their faith’s authenticity lingers, mostly for Trinitie, but we’re left wondering little else about their interior lives. Encased by a narrative that’s also repeating itself—each day a new, inadvisable strategy for soliciting interest in the church reopening—the characters’ capacity for satire and critique is limited.

But what the film gets, the film nails. Hall and Brown have an extremely keen sense of how they’d talk, move, and act in the world of Southern Christianity. The Childs harness a system that once explicitly oppressed—and now implicitly oppresses—Black Americans and women, and they do so without altering a structure built by and for whiteness. Hall wears the personal tolls of these myriad intersections—race, religion, gender, class, power—with disarming expertise. You can feel her struggle of living “above reproach” in a culture that’s obsessed with reproaching her. Lee-Curtis, on the other hand, strikes an unnerving figure, drunk on the destiny of getting what he wants. The discomfort and sadness they wreak are generally more convincing than their comedy, which borders on improv routines begging for someone to cut (or yell “freeze!”).

Despite the film’s too-limited scope—it was adapted from a short and certainly feels like it—its best scenes transcend its wheel-spinning magnificently, and its clever formal conceit indicates a filmmaker with an impressive future. If not a showstopper itself, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. feels like a work you’d look back on to see a master start developing their style.

★★★   (3/5)