Reviewing the new Christian film Woodlawn is tough. I was thoroughly entertained by it but it definitely has problems. It is also a marked improvement over many other Christian films such as the recent hit War Room (which I saw some value in). I went back and forth on what grade to give the film (how much to weigh the flaws vs strengths and my overall entertainment…). Finally, I decided I’m just going to present the strengths and weaknesses and you can decide if it sounds like something you’d enjoy.
Woodlawn is directed by the Erwin Brothers who had previously done October Baby (haven’t seen) and Mom’s Night Out, which I actually thought was funny despite the terrible reviews. The overall production values of Woodlawn is a large step in the right direction for Christian films. The football scenes in particular I thought were really well shot and staged. The acting was also a step up across the board. It isn’t nearly as compelling as Freetown from earlier this year but it is a solid effort.
In the film we get the story of Tony Nathan played by Caleb Castille who was one of first African American NFL players to come out of Birmingham Alabama and be a big name. It chronicles his junior and senior year at Woodlawn High School just after forced integration in both the football team and school. The team is led by Coach Gerelds played by Nic Bishop, who is a practical, sensible nice guy.
When racial tensions erupt at the school Coach Gerelds lets a sports chaplain named Hank played by Sean Astin (that’s right Rudy in a football movie!) encourage the kids. He delivers a sermon about how the love of Jesus can overcome all the hate they are seeing and help them play as a team. The team is moved by his words and they convert. A little later on Coach Gerelds also has a conversion and decides to be baptized.
They end up battling for 2 seasons becoming better and Tony becoming more of a star player until even Sports Illustrated is profiling him. It all culminates in a huge game that has to be in a giant stadium with their rivals from another high school.
Like I said, overall I was entertained by Woodlawn. I thought the acting was pretty good with Bishop and Castille being the standouts. I thought it looked good and had an inspirational story with a more toned down Christian dogma than some other Christian films. I don’t think it is a movie that non-Christians will enjoy but I think it is less objectionable than other entries if that makes sense.
That said, there are problems. It is one of those films that should have been 30 minutes shorter and yet certain subplots like a relationship between Tony and his girlfriend Johnnie. There were also characters and plot points brought up that we never hear from again such as a more militant black student at the high school who tries to intimidate Tony and yet we don’t hear from him again. Woodlawn has a ‘villain of the week’ problem where I felt like every 10 minutes a new character was being presented as the villain, then they’d convert and we’d get a new one. There is also a separation of church and state subplot that I felt was underdeveloped.
The music was also way over the top. For example, at the beginning of the film Tony and his Dad are driving and by the music you would think it was the climax of the film. When that happens you don’t really have anywhere to go with it making the climatic music in the actual climax underwhelming.
Certain character transformations I also didn’t buy like when Coach Gerelds converts seemingly out of nowhere and when the entire rival team also converts including their coach who had been previously presented as an antagonist.
But all that said I was entertained by Woodlawn. If Christian audiences want quality films they should support this film. It really is so much better than War Room that I’m a little sad to see it not doing as well although certainly respectable audience turnout. This is a movie not an inspirational Sunday School lesson. Both have value for me but I would much rather watch films like Woodlawn and I hope the Christian film community continues to up their game.
So what do you think of Woodlawn? Does it sound like something you’d like? If so, go see it and let me know what you think.
Here is my youtube review. Would love if you gave it a watch and thumbs up!