The power of Christ compels you! To win football games! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film more taken with the singular American delusion that Jesus loves football… though, to be fair, it also throws in a new delusion: that Jesus also hates the U.S. Constitution. Woodlawn is fun that way.
Ostensibly, the movie — from the Christian filmmaking team of brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin — wants to be about how Jesus helped defuse the tension arising from the forced racial integration of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1970s. But how this might have occurred is never dramatized. Somehow, apparently, it was down to a “sports chaplain” (Sean Astin: Do You Believe?, Click) converting nearly the whole damn Woodlawn football team that had something to do with it. But what that means, specifically, is never clear. Certainly white people of faith were deeply involved in the civil-rights movement, and I’m sure it would be nice to see a movie about them — I mean, why not hijack another story from black Americans? But this is not that story.
The real problem with Woodlawn is that it doesn’t seem to know what its story is. It doesn’t give any room at all to its putative central character, talented black high-school football player Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), to do much of anything, even while he’s supposed to be deciding what he wants out of life. He went on to play in the NFL, but whatever personal journey he took on the way to committing himself to football is absent here; mostly he sits around beaming beatifically at white people — such as his coach, Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), and legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul Bryant (Jon Voight: Four Christmases, An American Carol) — as they behave in nobly unracist ways. (It’s difficult to tell because he has so little to do, but newcomer Castille could have a future onscreen; he certainly is swoon-inducing movie-star handsome.)
Woodlawn seems more concerned with demonizing the U.S.’s legally mandated separation of Church and State than with anything else, casting Birmingham’s Board of Education as evil racists when it informs Gerelds that he really cannot, in a public school, lead prayers before a game. If there were any dissenters in Woodlawn High School, any atheists or students of other faiths who resented having the Christian religion forced upon them — as there almost certainly had to be — there is no evidence of them here. (Though there is one teacher who proclaims that “I was an atheist last week” but has been converted by the mere fact that students have set up a prayer group. Only someone with no understanding of atheism could have concocted such a bizarre notion. This movie is allegedly based on fact, but I doubt this tidbit is.)
The film’s narration opens by announcing that “some call what happened here a miracle.” We have no idea what this is referring to, unless it’s meant to be the fact that a lot of people later turned out for a high-school football game because Jesus. Woodlawn suffers badly from an aggressive and overpowering score, dialogue that sounds like everyone talking knows they’re in a movie, and an overall sense of desperation to sell the viewer on Christianity as a force for good. If that’s a miracle, it’s one performed by a weak, anxious, uncertain deity.