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Sports and religion are a potent combination, one that siblings Jon and Andrew Erwin (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out) exploit to canny effect in their new film based on the real-life Woodlawn High School football team that played in a history-making 1973 game that attracted 42,000 spectators (another 20,000 were turned away). With the recent wave of faith-based films making a real impact at the box-office, Woodlawn could prove a significant draw, at least in the red states.
Set in racially torn Birmingham, Alabama, the film begins with a prologue depicting the attempt by legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant (Jon Voight, strongly playing the iconic role) to ease tensions by inviting the integrated USC team to play in his still largely segregated city.
Cut to three years later, when the Woodlawn high school becomes integrated, with football coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop) welcoming the arrival of such talented black players as Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille, making an impressive screen debut). But the team still struggles to compete against their rivals at Banks High School, led by Coach Shorty White (C. Thomas Howell).
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So when Hank (Sean Astin) shows up at Woodlawn, introducing himself as a “sports chaplain” and asking to address the beleaguered team, Tandy reluctantly agrees. In his impassioned speech Hank asks the players to “choose Jesus” and, much to the coach’s amazement, most of the players agree, including Tony.
It doesn’t take long for Tandy to see the light as well, suddenly undergoing a religious awakening and getting baptized in a scene featuring Bob Dylan‘s “Knockin‘ on Heaven’s Door” on the soundtrack. Even more surprisingly, rival coach Shorty — who previously taunted Tandy during a rain-soaked game by derisively shouting, “Them angels is crying! Them angels is crying!” — is soon also converted.
Meanwhile, Bryant steadfastly pursues rising star Tony, at one point showing up at his home with a suitcase in hand and announcing, “I’m not leaving here until you decide to come to Alabama.”
The dramatic tension is raised in several episodes, which include Tony refusing to shake Alabama governor George Wallace‘s hand during an awards dinner, citing Wallace’s opposition to school integration; Tandy getting in trouble with the high school board because of his religious activities; and most powerfully, Hank getting the microphone plug pulled while delivering the Lord’s Prayer before the big game, only to have the thousands of spectators spontaneously recite it for him.
The Erwin brothers, who have a personal stake in the material — their father, Hank Erwin, is the real-life chaplain played by Astin — lay on the religiosity on a bit thick, occasionally sacrificing credibility and coherence in the process. But the film largely succeeds in achieving its modest goals, delivering a feel-good, real-life inspirational story in a mostly engaging fashion. With its well-staged gridiron sequences and solid ensemble performances, Woodlawn may even manage to lure viewers away from their televised football games over the next couple of weeks.
Production: Crescent Pictures, Red Sky Studios
Cast: Nic Bishop, Sean Astin, Caleb Castille, Sherri Shepherd, Jon Voight, C. Thomas Howell
Directors: Jon Erwin, Andy Erwin
Screenwriters: Jon Erwin, Quinton Peeples
Producers: Kevin Downes, Daryl C. Lefever
Executive producers: Mark Burnett, Holley Ellis, Scott Ellis, Andrew Erwin
Director of photography: Kristopher Kimlin
Production designer: Jaymes Hinkle
Editor: Brent McCorkle
Costume designer: Anna Redmon
Composer: Paul Mills
Casting: Elizabeth Barnes
Rated PG, 123 minutes
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