Movie Review- “Woodlawn”

Caleb Castille & Jon Voight in a scene from "Woodlawn" , in theaters on Oct. 16th.

Caleb Castille & Jon Voight in a scene from “Woodlawn” , in theaters on Oct. 16th.

“Where are you living from?” asks Junior Nathan to his son Tony. The young man taps his fist to his heart, and so begins the emotional true story of “Woodlawn”. The film portrays the events that unfolded at Woodlawn High School in the early 1970’s in Birmingham, Alabama. Woodlawn is going through the transition of desegregation, and is experiencing severe clashes between the races. It was on the verge of closing, until a spiritual revival–popular in other cities at the time—came to Woodlawn when evangelist/sports chaplain Hank Erwin offers an invitation to the Woodlawn football team to live another way.

Let me just say up front: this is not a movie that will tap dance around with some vaguely Christian/ religious message. Early and often, filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin (the real Hank Erwin’s sons) want you to know: Jesus is the way…the only way, and they make no apologies for it. As a Christian, this doesn’t bother me and I appreciate seeing a movie where there are lots of characters in real situations– each in their own personal stage of believing or not believing. It’s a refreshing change from the usual portrayals of believers that Hollywood gives as hypocrites who are either impossibly good or unbelievably bad.

Hank Erwin is played very convincingly by Sean Astin (“Lord of the Rings”, “Rudy”), who has become a familiar face in faith-based films in recent years. Whether Astin is a Christian or not, he does an exceptional job in his role persuading others why they should be one and how loving each other can restore unity to the school and the city. One of his most powerful scenes comes at the end at the pre-game prayer rally when Woodlawn is playing their biggest rival, Banks High School. That’s all I’ll say about that scene because if you want to know what happens…you just have to see the movie.

Another veteran actor –and an Academy Award winner no less– has a prominent role in this independent film. Jon Voight (“Coming Home”, “Midnight Cowboy”), who plays the legendary University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, is both poignant and humorous in his portrayal of the man who tirelessly pursues Tony Nathan to play for his team. Nathan is a young man with a talent for running who, in the midst of the racial turmoil around him, becomes a star athlete at Woodlawn. Newcomer Caleb Castille holds his own against the more seasoned actors in the cast with no problems. His Tony Nathan goes from being a soft-spoken football player with doubts about being in a school where he’s not wanted, to being a courageous team leader. If his performance in “Woodlawn” is any indication, Castille has a bright future in films.

Since the story is often told from the point of view of Woodlawn head coach Tandy Gerelds, I don’t want to overlook the work of Australian actor Nic Bishop (“Body of Proof”) in that role. His scenes with Castille are some of the most touching in the film. Kevin Sizemore (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) is his right-hand man Jerry Stearns, who often provides some much-needed comic relief.

Speaking of which, Sherri Shepherd (“The View”, “One for the Money”) gets in some great one-liners as Tony’s feisty mother Louise, and fans of ‘80’s films will recognize the familiar face of C. Thomas Howell (“The Outsiders”, “Red Dawn”), who plays George “Shorty” White. White was the coach of Woodlawn’s rival team Banks High School. In Howell’s hands, White is an over-the top character that lives and breathes football and gives the film some of its lighter moments.

Without a doubt, “Woodlawn” is a very ambitious film. There’s a lot going on here, aside from the obvious issues of racism, desegregation and faith. It touches on prayer in the public schools, domestic abuse, and facing fears head-on—lots of big life stuff. One very important point made is the relevance of fathers (and father figures) in the lives of young people, and how the lack of such relationships can negatively affect them. This is best shown in Tony’s relationship with his father (played by talented actor Lance E. Nichols) and Coach Gerelds, compared to his girlfriend Johnnie (Joy Brunson) who comes from a home with an abusive father and no mother. In a culture where parents—especially fathers—are ridiculed and made to look unnecessary, it’s good to see a film where strong men are raising their sons to be responsible to their families, to each other and to their community.

In fact, it’s really a perfect Father’s Day film, but the filmmakers may not want to wait that long to release the DVD.**

If you plan to see this movie, try to do so on opening weekend (Oct. 16th) because a strong showing at the beginning gets Hollywood’s attention and makes it more likely that films like “Woodlawn” will stick around and more will be made, as in the recent success of “War Room”.

You don’t have to like football (I don’t) to appreciate the message of “Woodlawn”. Some of the most inspiring films seem to revolve around it (“Rudy”, “Remember the Titans”). Next weekend, “Woodlawn” will join that distinguished list.

***NOTE:   For more about this film, see last week’s posting on the making of “Woodlawn”.  

**This DVD is now available

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