The stage play and musical film “The Music Man” examines the world of the carnival charlatan Harold Hill, a larger-than-life character that transfixes and charms an entire town to his own financial gain.
A product of the 1950s and early 1960s popular culture, it’s a relatively lighthearted cautionary tale meant to warn audiences away from being taken advantage of by con men posing as a moral compass for others.
The biggest flaw of “The Music Man” is the surface level examination of who Harold is as a character, and it’s in that spirit that independent filmmaker Adamma Ebo crafts a boisterous tale of grandiose religious zealotry with her Sundance Film Festival selection and feature directorial debut Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul, which debuted in select theaters and began streaming on Peacock this past weekend.
Filmed largely in a comedic mock-documentary style popularized by shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation and most recently Abbott Elementary, Honk For Jesus follows Regina Hall’s Trinitie Childs, the proud wife and “first lady” to Southern Baptist mega-church pastor Lee-Curtis as the couple seeks to rebuild the congregation of Wander to Greater Paths, which closed amid a scandal the pastor and his wife refuse to acknowledge publicly, and more importantly, to each other
The success and failure of Honk For Jesus boils down to the two leading performances, which take up over 90 percent of the entire film, with Hall and This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown more than up for the task.
The pair take audiences on the journey of the film by slowly revealing the cracks in the marriage of Trinitie and Lee-Curtis, as well as the larger cracks on their individual psyches with care and precision.
Honk For Jesus isn’t a film that plays for large laughs, but more cutting, nuanced humor that drips throughout Ebo’s screenplay. Unfortunately, the comedic elements often run a bit too dry for home viewing on a streaming platform like Peacock, but this is more than counterbalanced by wonderfully complex drama in the final act.
Hall is exceptional throughout Honk For Jesus, taking her Tammy Faye Bakker-esque character from superficial stereotype to pained wife struggling with conflicts between her moral compass and Christian duties to her husband. Audiences are able to see the wear and tear strains in Trinitie’s marriage have taken in Hall’s eyes, which begin to lose their luster midway through the film. It’s an exceptional physical performance in a role where it may be more than Ebo expected as a director.
Brown portrays Lee-Curtis as half carnival barker, half charismatic politician who has bought so deeply into his own story that he cannot even control the increasingly contradictory nature of his choices. It’s by far the most demonstrative performance of Brown’s career and it’s clear that that the actor revels in the wide berth Ebo gives him as a director to be reckless with Lee-Curtis’s choices.
The divide in their marriage stands out in just how distant Hall and Brown are from each other as performers and it plays out to great effect as the film veers away from the mockumentary style and leans into the more emotional drama.
Ebo’s film uses the camera as a storytelling device from the outset, though it may not entirely clear to viewers at first glance.
Through a subtle, yet distinctive framing trick, Honk For Jesus carries itself in and out of the narrative structure visually more than expected as Ebo swaps a widescreen 2:35:1 format and a more 1:55:1 box format in a second by second basis to indicate moments that are happening in real-time versus ones captured by the documentary crew.
This doesn’t become apparent until Lee-Curtis and Trinitie engage more directly with the off-screen characters of documentarian Anita and her film crew, one of whom Lee-Curtis thrusts into the narrative in a somewhat shocking scene that brings out the best of Brown’s increasingly manic performance.
An imperfect film with astonishingly memorable characters, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul isn’t necessarily the kind of comedy that would bring down the house in large theaters but may be the perfect dramedy to take a chance on with a home viewing experience on Peacock.