de facto film reviews 3 stars

With names such as Jordan Peele and Daniel Kaluuya attached as producers and tons of buzz coming out of Sundance, it’s not hard to get to excited at the idea of a satire on rich church culture starring the likes of Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown. The Ebo Twins, but with writing and directing credits going to Adamma Ebo and producing credits going to her sister, Adanne Ebo, this satirical dramedy, adapted from the 2018 short film of the same name, is a sharp and pointed satire on organized religion that doesn’t skimp out on character depth.

Regina Hall, on a roll with some of the best work of her career in the Indie Spirit-nominated Support the Girls and this year’s quietly chilling Master, is Trinitie Childs, the First Lady of mega church, Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. Sterling K. Brown, who was robbed of award recognition for his powerful turn in Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, is Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs, the dynamic pastor of the church, home to over 25,000 congregants. He’s a showman, cut more from the same cloth as Joel Osteen than Kenneth Copeland, raising money to pay off his county’s debt, hosting local politicians for special dinners and maintaining an infectious persona. That persona, however, crumbles after a scandal involving Lee-Curtis’s alleged misconduct with several younger male constituents causes a mass exodus of his congregation, forcing the Childs’ to close their doors. In hopes of making a ground-swelling comeback, Lee-Curtis decides to reopen Greater Paths on Easter Sunday and hires a documentary film crew to provide a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the event, attempting to portray his marriage and image in a more positive light. However, the road to redemption is far harder to come by, with a rival church, run by former protégées of the Childs’, Shakura Sumpter, the ever-commanding Nicole Beharie (Shame, Miss Juneteenth), and her husband Keon, Conphidance (the Apple TV+ show Little America), taking away much of Greater Paths’ former congregation and opening a new church, also on Easter Sunday. Not to mention the fragile nature of the Childs’ marriage, which is seemingly ready to crack at any moment.

Writer/director Adamma Ebo and producer Adanne Ebo split the narrative of their film between two intersecting perspectives. There’s the “mockumentary” viewpoint, in which the Childs try to clean up – but really control – their tainted image and how the couple is both good and (mostly) terrible at it, and the traditional narrative viewpoint. Utilizing a 1:66:1 aspect ratio for the mockumentary footage and a 2:35:1 for the traditional footage, the shift in perspective will sometimes change within the same scene, but for the majority of the film, these perspectives shift by scene. The mockumentary footage is where Ebo relishes in the satirical elements of the film, with sometimes broad, but frequently funny material. The traditional perspective of the film tells the more intimate and raw side of the characters.

We’re introduced to the couple by exploring their home and church. We see extended sequences of the couple showing off their giant closet exclusively full of Prada, their extravagant and fashionable church, and many other flamboyant styles of living. Lee-Curtis is more comfortable with the cameras around him, making it easier for him to put on that larger-than-life façade. Trinitie struggles more with putting on the hunky-dory attitude, as her relationship with her husband is far from the one they attempt to showcase. She wants to be seen as a loving and loyal church wife while also maintaining the image of a strong and fierce first lady. “Every woman is not built for the great responsibility of being a First Lady,” Trinitie remarks at the start of the film, just after the cameras catch her off guard while she’s dropped the on-camera personality.

Hall is splendid here, utilizing her unrivaled skills as a comedienne and as a fiercely compelling dramatic presence. Ebo takes Hall’s skills for the best, having to drop between comedy and heartbreak occasionally within the same prolonged shot. Brown is nothing short of stellar in his work as an ego-filled pastor. It’s not often enough that Brown gets to flex his comedic chops, so it’s more of a delight when the actor gets to relish in the broader aspects of the character, absolutely nailing the swagger of the persona he projects. The Emmy-winner masterfully breathes life into this complicated character that has a great number of demons within him. A truly touching exchange between Childs and a former inmate who changed his ways after hearing his sermons showcases the film’s genuine sense of empathy for its characters. In contrast, there’s a powerful moment in the third act between Lee-Curtis and one of his accusers, seeking closure on the pain that was inflicted on him.

It takes awhile for the film to gain a natural sense of rhythm in its pacing, initially feeling stagnant between comedic and dramatic segments. Ebo has her cake and eats it too in terms of storytelling, which tends to undercut some of the film’s finer moments with its dueling tonal shifts. There is sizable dramatic weight in the thoughtful, layered portrayal of the Childs’ marriage. Both Hall and Brown sell you every step of the way, even when the film sometimes walks on shaky ground. Perhaps a highlight, not just of the film, but of the year, is an initially awkward car ride home that becomes spirited with Hall and Brown fiercely spitting to Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck”.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is a highly comedic, but thoughtful and weighted satire on the hypocrisy of organized religion and the struggle of faith. With two powerful performances by stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, writer/director Adamma Ebo proves to be a creative force in the works.