Concerns about the elimination of gender-specific acting categories at awards shows are often based on the fear that, without a category specifically designated to spotlight women, all of the most celebrated performances each year would be performed by cisgender men. And that may be true – given the demographic makeup of who votes for, say, the Oscars, it may be some time before the big ceremonies are geared up to prioritize the incredible work done by the women, especially black women, in movies. But if a male actor gave a performance with the depth and expressiveness of Regina Hall and Aubrey Plaza at this year’s festival, I haven’t seen it yet.
There are strong arguments to be made for Hall as Sundance MVP. I appreciated his work in Masterbut this is Adamma Ebo’s first feature film, Honk for Jesus. save your soul, which boasts the best of its two star performances at this year’s festival, even if the film itself is as frustrating as it is compelling. Hall plays Trinitie Childs, the loyal wife of disgraced Atlanta megachurch pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown). In a post-screening Q&A, Ebo claims he adopted a mockumentary setting to give Trinitie and Lee-Curtis a textual reason to “turn on” when the cameras were present. Corn Honk for Jesus. save your soul does not apply this mechanism transparently.
Still, it’s worth stepping past any fussiness to access Hall’s expressive and inspired performance. In case you didn’t know, the most terrifying person in America is a nice southern lady when she’s passive-aggressive, and there’s a scene in that movie where the “bless your heart” cuts like a knife in the ribs. The layers of superficial politeness and covert hatred prove to be the key to understanding Trinitie: she is a woman who endures humiliation after humiliation because that is what she has been taught to do.
Honk for Jesus. save your soul also calls out the hypocrisy of church figures who are judgmental of LGBTQ people while engaging in sexual misconduct. Ultimately, however, the film is more compelling as a character study. The humor can be very silly, but Hall continues to push his scenes into something deeper: there’s a moment near the end of the film when Hall, dressed in a comedic costume that I won’t reveal here, delivers a monologue that should be taught as an actor. schools. Where a lesser actor would have seemed ridiculous, she circumvents self-parody by grounding her character in emotional truth and lending her heartbreaking pathos. We witness the ultimate humiliation of a broken woman, who is trapped and does not know where to go.
There’s not a lot of humor in Emily the criminal. But there is a compelling main character and a strong undercurrent of all-American desperation. Here, the unseen threat is the pile of insurmountable and ever-growing debt that has forced our protagonist, frustrated artist Emily (Aubrey Plaza), into a form of 21st-century indentured servitude. Unable to keep up with interest on her student loans and unable to get a better-paying job thanks to a pair of embarrassing blemishes on her permanent record, Emily throws every penny she earns on a GrubHub analog to her creditors every month. As an independent entrepreneur, she has no hope of advancing.
That is, until a clandestine co-worker hookup introduced Emily to the exciting world of credit card fraud. Writer-director John Patton Ford turns up the heat on Emily’s criminal activities like the proverbial frog in the pot, raising the stakes with each new scam. Viewers are left to wonder: Is I buy a TV with a stolen credit card for $200? How about a car for $2,000? What would be I if I had $70,000 in debt and no legal way to pay it off? A subplot involving Emily’s art school pal who gets her an interview at an advertising agency only reinforces how trapped she is, while also offering biting commentary on the myth of meritocracy.
Emily’s cynical story is a ghost version of the American dream, as she sets out on her own with nothing more than a burner phone, a taser, an waffle machine and a desire for a better life. His literal partner in crime, Youcef (Theo Rossi), is an immigrant from Lebanon, which deepens the theme. It’s a juicy role, one that allows Plaza to explore the nuances of his tongue-in-cheek style, from stoic angst to dogged determination. Amoral and complex roles like this are still too rarely cast in female leads, and you can easily imagine Emily as a character in a Michael Mann film. She’s definitely ready to go out in 30 seconds flat if she feels the heat around the corner.
Plaza was the driving force behind obtaining Criminal Emily directed, producing the film with his company, Evil Hag Productions, after reading Ford’s script. Usually, when Plaza takes this step, the results are superior to the films she makes with major studios. (See also: 2020s Black bear or 2017 Ingrid goes west.) Hall has no producer credit on Honk for Jesus. save your soul, but she was an executive producer Master, and recently signed a first agreement with Showtime through his own production company, Rh Negative. Both of these actors had their time in great comedies (remember when Hall was in horror movie?) and it’s exciting to watch them branch out and take control of their own artistic voice. Sundance may not have a best actress category, but in my mind, they both won big at this festival.