Saturday, October 17, 2015

'Woodlawn' is a Balanced Faith-Based Sports Movie

Review of "Woodlawn"
Coach Geralds (Nic Bishop) leads his team in prayer. (Pure Flix)

 MOVIE REVIEW 

In the new faith-based football-themed movie, Woodlawn, there is a scene near the end where the coach of a high school football team gets in a little hot water for praying with his team players. The movie is set in 1973. Ironically, today, a Seattle high school coach is in similar hot water for doing the very same thing. It is sort of art imitating life imitating art.

The makers of faith-based films have had an uphill battle getting others to “sign on” with their mission of spreading the gospel via film. Early attempts proved to be made on a shoestring budget with volunteer actors and poorly written scripts. Because of that, faith-based films have had a sort of stigma about them. Some creators of these films will not let their films be screened for critics in fear that they will tear their productions apart.


Nic Bishop and Sean Astin in "Woodlawn"
(Left) Coach Geralds (Nic Bishop) attends church for the first time. (Right) Hank (Sean Astin) starts the whole ball rolling.
The tide started to turn a few years back when Mark Burnett and Roma Downey jumped into pool and created The Bible miniseries for the History channel followed by the Son of God movie. Both were huge hits, but that is partially because both Burnett and Downey understand what a quality film needs to succeed and sometimes that means a lot cash to bring in the right talent. The two serve as executive producers of this football flick and so far, the reviews coming in for the film are looking pretty good. Including this one.

The best sports movies are the ones where the story is about something greater than the sport itself, something that both Million Dollar Arm and McFarland, USA proved last year. There has to be a good balance of the sport itself with some human interaction. For faith-based movies to succeed, preaching needs to take a backseat to plot and character development. Sure, some will say that Woodlawn is too preachy while others will say that the film doesn’t go far enough. I say that Woodlawn does this incredible balancing act beautifully.

The story is a true one taking place at the Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, (and yes, before you even ask, the song Sweet Home Alabama is indeed featured). It is a government-mandated desegregated school with the football team being a symbol of the greater problem. Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille) is one of the black players who jogs to school in the morning with his father following him with his truck to make sure that he arrives there safely. Coach Tandy Geralds (Nic Bishop) instructs his team that the black and white students will work together as team, not because any of them want to, but because the government is forcing them too. As you can imagine, this is better said than done.
Ironically, what seems like trouble walking through the door, becomes this school’s literal salvation. Hank (Sean Astin) limps in the gym with a cane and asks the coach he can speak to the players about Jesus for just five minute. The coach relents, Hank speaks for a lot longer and every player accepts Jesus as their Lord and Savior right on this spot. When Tandy comes home, he tells his wife that he just let some stranger come in and convert his whole team. She asks, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” and he replies, “I don’t know.”

Now, this sounds like a cheesy Christian film, doesn’t it? But it really happened and without giving too much away, let’s just say that the story just gets better and better. The team starts acting more like a real team and they star winning their games. Other schools take notice on how the black players work side by side with the white players. Eventually, the Colonels make a run at the state playoffs led by Tony, who’s performance starts to attracts the likes of University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (Jon Voight).

Another great thing about Woodlawn is that it is more than just Tony’s story. It’s also Hanks and Tandy’s. Nic Bishop is perfect for his role as the skeptical coach in the beginning to practically a crusader in the end. This is Caleb Castille’s first feature film and it won’t be his last. Finally, there is something great about bringing the star of Rudy to come play with the gang on this film as well. The cast also includes Sherri Shepherd playing Tony’s mom. The film is directed by The Erwin Brothers who also directed October Baby and Mom’s Night Out.

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