Jon and Andrew Erwin really are the best thing going in the Christian movie cottage industry.
There’s your pull quote, and though it is faint praise, I will stand by it.
The Birmingham brothers have followed the game plan parroted by so many Christian auteurs: learn by doing and focus on making sure each film is a little better than the last. In the span of five years they have progressed from October Baby, an earnest but heavy-handed anti-abortion melodrama, to Woodlawn, a historical drama that at least grasps after crossover appeal.
Inspired by a true story, Woodlawn tells the story of a revival at an Alabama high school that parallels the resurgence of its football program. Like Mom’s Night Out, the Erwins’ latest film leans heavily on a genre formula.
But since I tend to like Christian films to the degree they seek to tell dramatic stories in addition to setting up sermons, I actually appreciate the Erwins’ willingness to wed Christian content to well established genres. After a prologue in which Alabama legend Bear Bryant (Jon Voight) sees his Crimson Tide outmatched by an integrated USC program, Woodlawn shifts focus to a lesser known coach, Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop). Coach Gerelds’s team is in disarray, and there are rumors that the program, indeed the school itself, may soon be shut down.
When a shadowy team observer, Hank (Sean Astin, with 70s sideburns), asks for permission to address the team, Gerelds isn’t thrilled. But he allows it. As Gerelds walks out of his office and down the dim hallways towards the gym, we hear Hank preaching that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The last line comes as Gerelds literally walks out of the darkness (of the hallway) and into the light (of the gym).
As player after player responds to the altar call, the camera zooms to a close up of the stunned coach. “What just happened?” he asks.
If the storyboarding and camera work here are a bit obvious, the placement of the altar call near the beginning rather than at the end at least gives the film room to breathe. Will the players’ examples rub off on the skeptical coach? Will decisions made in that gym stand up to the pressures, animosity, and racism that lurk outside the gym?
Those are interesting questions, and Woodlawn’s interest in transformation rather than just justification is a major step forward for Christian films. Also, unlike some of their peers, the Erwins have used their early films to hone their technique and get the most out of smaller budgets. (Don’t take my word for it: film star Sean Astin said in a press conference for Mom’s Night Out that the Erwins’ films look better than some films he has been in with exponentially higher budgets.)
Given the film’s themes of racial reconciliation, I was ready to go up to 2 ½ or maybe 3 stars despite some structural problems that bog down the last act.
But . . .
You just can’t have “Sweet Home Alabama” in this movie. You just can’t.