Woodlawn got surprisingly decent reviews for a Christian movie from both audiences & critics, so I went to check it out and I found something quite surprising: a darn good movie. The story of a fractured football team, battling racism and crime, pulling together in the name of Jesus has some potential. After all, sports movies basically have all the religious uplift of a “Christian” film, only without the name of God invoked specifically. But this film does a lot of things right. Nic Bishop is really wonderful as the coach of the team; he’s a committed skeptic and he gets to stand in for the audience member who maybe isn’t quite on board for all this Jesus stuff. Sean Astin is quite good as the evangelist that leads the team to Jesus, but then Astin’s always been great at making things that would sink any other actor come across as moving by pure sincerity. And when the script gets too cheesy, the movie throws Bishop in there to roll his eyes and deflate the moments. Bishop is really quite wonderful, nothing short of brilliant I’d say. Caleb Castille is equally good as talented running back Tony Nathan; he plays Tony as a driven young man, but driven at times to his detriment. The film doesn’t flinch from allowing both Bishop and Castille to play their characters as men wrestling with deep seated anger and this after they’ve been “saved.” The film wisely allows the characters to remain flawed and never to become saintlike.
And the football action is really brilliant. The Erwin brothers like to pull their camera out wide and show you the real dance happening on the field; some of this stuff is really beautifully choreographed. And there’s a brilliant sequence of football in the rain that is, no kidding, absolutely gorgeous. I’ll just say it: this is the first movie in the spate of new “Christian” movies that doesn’t look like it was shot on the cheap; the film looks quite gorgeous at times. And the film really does have some surprising moments where it sets you up for the cheesy inspirational moment and then pulls back; there’s a scene where Nathan is hurt and you’re prepared for the cheesy “play through the pain” moment, but the film sucker punches you and goes a completely different direction. And the ending is another great example; there’s a really wonderful moment when the music swells and the inspiration is reaching high and then the movie just undercuts it with a great moment that is somehow both very funny and surprisingly thought-provoking. Anyway, color me very surprised. The film has its flaws, yes; there are a couple of scenes that are very preachy and a subplot involving Tony Nathan’s girlfriend is just dead in the water and should have been cut entirely – quite cheesy. But Woodlawn is a movie that works its magic surprisingly well. It’s a movie about finding hope again and it has, interestingly enough, actually given me hope, but not in what you might think; Woodlawn has given me hope for the Christian film industry. Surprisingly nuanced writing, clever characterizations, great performances, solid direction – I don’t know if the Christian film industry will ever turn out a masterpiece, but Woodlawn? Woodlawn makes me hope. 3 stars.
tl;dr – sports movie overcomes many of the usual flaws of “Christian” films ; great performances from leads and a smart, occasionally subversive script help balance the clichés. 3 stars.