Trinity Childs (Regina Hall) is the “First Lady” of Wander to Greater Paths, an Atlanta Southern Baptist megachurch run by her husband, Lee-Curtis (Sterling K. Brown). They are 25,000 parishioners strong – or rather, they was 25,000 parishioners strong. When writer/director Adamma Ebo‘s movie “Shoot for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” opener, they are down to five of their former faithful. A mysterious scandal has depleted their ranks, and a documentary crew led by an unknown woman named Anita is filming Lee-Curtis Childs redemption tour. The disgraced pastor tells his wife that his comeback is going to be like the movie “Rocky.” “But Rocky lost,” she tells him. This comparison is the first of many signs of doom.
Trinitie and Lee-Curtis try to keep up on the air when they’re on camera. Ebo changes the aspect ratio to inform us when we watch the mockumentary footage and when we see private details meant only for us. For Anita’s search, the Childs sit on golden thrones in front of their empty church and explain to future viewers certain forms of worship as “praise miming,” which is exactly what you think it is. Like all Protestant ministers of this particular sect, Lee-Curtis is utterly dazzling, an always-on entertainer with the attire to back up the flash. “I love Prada,” he says as the camera pans through his massive closet filled with suits in so many colors they would put Joseph’s coat to shame. The only thing more outrageous is Childs’ shoe collection.
Trinité, on the other hand, is the typical pastor’s wife: faithful, supportive and more than a little bit petty. Keeping up appearances seems to be her modus operandi, so it’s no surprise that fate will make her life a living hell of embarrassment. A scene between her and Sister Denetta (Olivia D. Dawson), a former parishioner she bumps into during a shopping spree at the mall, is a hilarious and realistic exercise in good old-fashioned Southern passive-aggressiveness. If you’re a church lady, or if you know one, this scene will ring true while offering all the cringe-worthy comedy the situation deserves.
And where did all the worshipers of Wander to Greater Paths wander off to? To a new church run by a younger married couple, Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Confidence and Nicole Beharie, respectively). Heaven’s House Church not only gives a very loud and joyful sound to the Lord on Sundays, it has grown so large that the Sumpters have to open another location. Unfortunately for the Childs, the grand opening coincides with their plans to use the same Easter Sunday for Lee-Curtis’ triumphant return to the pulpit.
“What good are disciples when they are not disciplined?” Lee-Curtis asks when confronted with the accusation that he fired his deacons. “Hip for Jesus. Save your soul.” asks the same discipline-based question about Lee-Curtis. It’s pretty easy to figure out what kind of sexual misconduct he’s been accused of committing, and Ebo gets some mileage out of excerpts from a call-in radio show where Atlanta residents express their opinions. Recordings of Rev. Children’s sermon against homosexuality serves as more than just a reminder of the many times my church informed me that Jesus hated me and my LGBTQ brothers. Of course, Lee-Curtis blames the Devil for his sins. “The devil is a shell under the floorboards,” he says. The only way he would know is if he was under the floorboards looking for him.
When Ebo concentrates on the satirical aspects mocking the hypocrisy she exposes, “Shoot for Jesus. Save your soul.” fun firing on all cylinders. It’s when the film tries to juggle the darker aspects that its seams start to show. The last 15 minutes or so juxtaposes some very absurd images with deep, painful confrontations. It’s to Hall and Brown’s credit that the film manages to stay afloat. Hall’s face is a wonderland of expressions, both subtle and grandiose, and she knows which ones to use at the perfect moment. Not many actresses could survive playing destruction scenes in full mime makeup. The final shot of the film reflects her face with a screaming Black Jesus statue Lee-Curtis demanded she use to promote their comeback. Hall milks it for all the pathos it’s worth and more.
The normally stoic Brown jumps at the chance to make it big, showing off his comedic chops like he’ll never get the chance to do it again. Lee-Curtis is a strutting peacock, but he’s also selfish, delusional and self-loathing. He believes in saving souls, but cannot see that his own are in dire need of salvation. When he drops the showmanship during his rehearsal sermon and gives an Oscar show clip of an impassioned plea for forgiveness, Trinity sees right through him. “You need to make it more convincing,” she tells him.
Beharie is as good as leads. Her facial reactions are just as priceless as Hall’s, and she subtly revels in the damage from Childs’ misadventure. When Trinity politely asks her to move the grand opening of their church, Shakura just as politely tells her no dice. So much of the film’s humor comes from this play with subtleties. It’s a shame that Ebo can’t successfully stick the landing for the darker scenes.
Still, what is here is choice material, especially if you grew up in the church or currently attend one of the many prosperity gospel megachurches. There’s real bite here, and I can’t think of another movie that’s badass enough to include “Knuck If You Buck” and “Never Would Have Made It” on the same soundtrack. Hall and Brown’s motoring performance of the former corresponds to today’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in “Wayne’s World.” That these two “God’s people” are rapping a profane song just goes to show that even the most pious of us can’t resist a good, sinful set of bars. “I’m not a pervert,” pleads Lee- Curtis at one point: “I am a sinner!” I will leave that judgment to God and the viewer.
Now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.