“Woodlawn” is a formulaic football film with some meat on it. It’s a faith-based “Remember the Titans” built on solid performances, the occasional feel-good (inspirational) moment and a script that lacks focus, if not ambition.
Woodlawn was a newly-integrated high school in troubled Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1970s. Its football team helped the city overcome its nickname — “Bombingham,” earned by the church bombings and other violence against civil rights activists — by ever-so-gently breaking segregation.
And the way they did this, the film tells us, was through faith and football.
Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille, good) is a shy teen, the hardest working athlete in town. He endures the racism of his new school’s fans, and his Woodlawn Colonels teammates, just for the chance to break through in this overwhelmingly white/newly integrated high school.
Coach Gerelds (Nic Bishop, stoic) isn’t overtly racist. He’s gone along with the way things always have been. But a couple of people bend his attitudes. One is his little boy, who wonders why he won’t do what it takes to win (play the black guys). The other is this self-identified sports chaplain who talks the coach into letting him address the team.
Sean Astin has his best role since “Rudy” as Hank, a preacher with a limp, a guy who sometimes uses a baseball bat as a cane. He gets the kids’ attention. And he ties their football fate to their common Southern Protestant Christian heritage. “Jesus Christ” is the way to win.
So while the rest of the school in “the most segregated city in America” is a boiling cauldron of racial rage — racist white kids, militant black ones — the football team starts doing prayer meetings, showing up at Christian Athletes events. Together.
They still lose, but Hank reassures them that losses “are God’s way of testing us.”
And then Tony gets to play and Woodlawn starts winning.
The Erwin Brothers, who gave us the anti-abortion drama “October Baby,” took a simple “Big Game/Integrate the Game” sports story of the “Glory Road” genre and worked too hard to place it in its “Jesus Generation” context. There’s a Billy Graham Crusade, Time Magazine’s “The Jesus Revolution” cover, the whole “Godspell/Jesus Christ Superstar/Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” era subtext rattling around the edges, tugging the picture away from its core story. “The Fifth Quarter” and “Facing the Giants” were more focused and more on-message.
That “This is bigger than football” message is hammered home, something you expect in a faith-based film. The sense of Christian martyrdom and just a hint of Christian militancy of such films (the principals run rampant over church-and-state separation) are here, too.
Tony refuses to have his photo taken with “Segregation Forever” Gov. George Wallace. He’s in love with a militant girl (Joy Brunson, delightful), creating a “You’re just these crackers’ trophy” conflict. The Graham crusades are glimpsed, and University of Alabama Coach Bear Bryant (Jon Voight) takes a growing interest in young Nathan. After all, Bear finally got around to integrating his football team after the film’s opening scene, a 1970 Crimson Tide loss to USC.
All this peripheral detail clutters “Woodlawn,” even if the Erwins and the faithful don’t see that. It undercuts their message. What integrated Alabama wasn’t so much Christian brotherhood as the REAL state religion — football. ‘Bama doesn’t lose to USC, who knows how long before Bear quietly admits “It’s time?”
But “Woodlawn” still has its pleasures, and unlike so many faith-based films, it’s not just has-been actors in the pandering, sappy leading roles, but the occasional big laugh and the sheen of a polished production. The games and on-field footage are well-shot and cut, the emotional scenes have some real power.
The soundtrack is peppered with pricey, period-perfect (if a tad too on-the-nose) classic rock songs, from “Sweet Home Alabama” (of course) to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (ditto), “Jesus is Just Alright” (ahem) to “Spirit in the Sky” (amen).
And C. Thomas Howell, no stranger to race-based tales (Remember “Soul Man”? He probably wishes you didn’t.) all but steals the picture, playing a snickering, trash-talking arch rival, Coach Shorty White.
When Woodlawn plays Shorty’s Banks High School, the black running back gets targeted. And then it rains. Divine intervention? Not to Shorty.
“That’s angels cryin’!”
The whole enterprise is very much a mixed bag, but as films that cater to this audience go, “Woodlawn” isn’t half bad. Like a lot of pastors in the pulpit, the Erwins could use a little editing, somebody to tap their shoulder at the 100 minute mark and say, “Preacher, maybe that’s enough for today.”
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements including some racial tension/violence
Cast: Caleb Castille, Sean Astin, Nic Bishop, Joy Brunson, Jon Voight, C. Thomas Howell
Credits: Directed by Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin, script by and Andrew Erwin, script by Quinton Peoples. A Pure Flix release.
Running time: 2:03