Taking those Hail Mary passes to heart, “Woodlawn” is a heavily Christian sports drama that almost goes the distance despite adhering closely to the inspirational movie playbook.
Although it wasn’t shown in advance to secular critics, the fact-based film turns out to be an improvement over many others in the faith-based flock, relating the early ’70s-era story of a racially tense Alabama high school whose football team finds a common ground through Jesus.
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Just when it was looking like Birmingham’s Woodlawn High’s attempts at desegregation were failing miserably, in walks gung-ho Hank (Sean Astin), a self-described sports chaplain who proceeds to convert practically the entire football team and its soul-searching coach (Nic Bishop).
Motivated by a higher cause, the Woodlawn Colonels significantly up their game, led by star black running back Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), but will it be enough to overcome the social adversities of the day, leading up to the big 1974 showdown with rival Banks High School?
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Sibling co-directors Jon and Andrew Erwin realize that just because they’re making a message movie, their audiences shouldn’t be any less entitled to a certain level of production value, and the nicely shot “Woodlawn” gets high marks for its attention to period detail and committed performances.
In addition to engaging turns by Astin, Bishop and newcomer Castille, there’s old pro Jon Voight playing the legendary “Bear” Bryant, who, like his fellow castmates, must overcome those truly garish ’70s fashions, not to mention an overwrought score that swells mightily at the slightest provocation.
Sure, it’s an evangelical “Remember the Titans,” but at least the Erwin brothers have made an effort, parochially speaking, to go outside the lines.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, including some racial tension/violence.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
Playing: In general release.