Given the dramatic potential of its nondenominational plot elements — high-school football, racial tensions in the 1970s Deep South, an appearance by a secular saint of college sports legend — “Woodlawn” could very well appeal beyond the usual target audience for faith-based indies. This overly long yet consistently involving period drama by Jon and Andrew Erwin (“October Baby”), sibling filmmakers who bill themselves as the Erwin Brothers, could be described, accurately, as equal parts “Remember the Titans” and revivalist tent meeting. But until the balance tips rather too blatantly toward the latter during the final minutes, the overall narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.
At heart, “Woodlawn” is a two-in-one biopic, neatly entwining the stories of Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop), a hard-driven high-school football coach, and Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), a prodigious young player who would go on to be a formidable running back for the Miami Dolphins. The time is the early 1970s, and the primary setting is the recently integrated Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala. — a divided city known derisively as “Bombingham” after a string of racially motivated bombings (including the infamous 1963 explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church) during the ’60s.
Gerelds, a white coach who’s introduced strapping a gun to his ankle in preparation for possible altercations at Woodlawn, initially seems more resigned than reconciliatory when it comes to racial animosity among his players. And he doesn’t appear to be especially fervent in his religious beliefs. But all that starts to change once he better appreciates the raw talent of Nathan (and, it’s implied, other black students new to Woodlawn), and after he’s exposed to the proselytizing sermons of Hank Erwin (Sean Astin), a self-described “sports chaplain.”
“Woodlawn” never makes it entirely clear if Erwin has any official connection to the school, or whatever else he might do for a living. (It should be noted that, in real life, this character went on to father two filmmakers named Jon and Andrew.) But as soon as Erwin is allowed to give a stirring pep talk to the racially fractionalized footballers, and more or less instantly convinces them to “choose Jesus,” the teammates start playing — and praying — together. Coach Gerelds is inspired to signal his own born-again zeal by being baptized in a local black church, and pretty soon even the trash-talking white coach at crosstown rival Banks High School (played with scene-stealing glee, if not evangelical ardor, by C. Thomas Howell) benefits from what might best be described as a contact epiphany.
Meanwhile, Nathan demonstrates such impressive prowess on the football field that he is actively recruited by legendary U. of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, whose presence looms large in “Woodlawn,” despite having relatively little screen time, thanks to the avuncular gravitas of a well-cast Jon Voight. Off the field, however, Nathan must deal with the harsh realities and constant dangers facing a proud black youth who distinguishes himself in this particular time and place. At one point, he refuses to shake hands with the infamously segregationist Gov. George Wallace — an act of defiance that does not go unnoticed by hostile rednecks.
“Woodlawn” is disappointingly fuzzy about the particulars of a minor subplot involving Nathan’s more radical black classmates, and too timid by half when it comes to delineating the unrepentant viciousness of racists riled by integration. (Much like “Remember the Titans,” this movie pointedly refrains from having anyone drop the N-bomb.) Even so, the Erwin brothers and co-scripter Quinton Peeples make a commendably honest effort to provide historical context for their earnest drama, and newcomer Castille is credible and creditable as a young man who relies heavily on his faith in God and support from his family as he mulls his unique chance to help make history.
Brit actor Bishop, who may be familiar to U.S. TV viewers for his roles in “Covert Affairs” and “Body of Proof,” convincingly adopts a Southern accent as effortlessly as he conveys exertions of authority and moments of doubt as Coach Erwin. To be sure, the only real antagonists impeding this character are thinly written straw men — mostly, school-board officials who are worried about the impact of integration, but even more worried about prayer in schools or at football games. But never mind: Nothing, not even the game’s actual outcome, is allowed to deflate the crowd-pleasing impact of the film’s climax, the real-life 1974 match-up between the Woodlawn and Banks football teams that attracted a record 42,000 fans to Birmingham’s Legion Field.
Production designer Jaymes Hinkle and costume designer Anna Redmon prove to be most valuable players while vividly evoking the ‘70s throughout “Woodlawn.” Songs of the era — including Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus is Just Alright” and, of course, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” — are aptly chosen for the soundtrack. One might question, though, whether the filmmakers ever were tempted to include Bobby Bare’s period-appropriate “Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)” in the playlist.