Throwing Down the Gauntlet, by Tyler Smith

20 Oct

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I walked into Andrew and Jon Erwin’s Woodlawn with my usual skepticism. Most Christian films leave a lot to be desired, both artistically and theologically. In an attempt to appeal to a neglected Evangelical audience, these films will oversimplify every element of their stories and themes, creating art meant to inspire its viewers, but that instead panders to them in the worst way. These films often fail at every artistic level, but are forgiven because their hearts are in the right place, as though a filmmaker’s intention is the only thing that matters.

And so when I was told that Woodlawn was the best Christian film in a while, I was understandably hesitant. A film that depicted faith amidst the trappings of a sports movie (a genre that often has pandering problems of its own) didn’t do much to inspire hope for me. But, while Woodlawn is far from perfect, it left me feeling engaged and entertained, which is more than can be said for any other faith-based film. For this reason alone, I consider Woodlawn to be the best Christian film I’ve ever seen.

Of course, that is a very loaded statement. Most of the credit that I give the film is for its basic competence. Whereas most Christian films lack any kind of narrative structure and any other artistic elements feel halting and perfunctory, Woodlawn actually feels like a movie. The directors understand the principles of cinematography and editing, and how they can be used to stir emotion within the audience. Scenes tend not to go on any longer than they have to, cutting off once the emotional impact is initially made, rather than blunting it by repetition. The world these characters inhabit feels lived-in and weather-beaten. We believe that we’re watching people walk around in the 1970s, which is quite a feat, considering many Christian films have a hard time making us believe we’re watching stories taking place in modern day.

Perhaps the reason for the filmmakers’ commitment to believability and engagement stems from their telling a true story. While many “based on a true story” films see no problem with being fanciful and taking major liberties with real life (a choice that doesn’t instinctively bother me), the Erwins seem to feel a responsibility to ground their film in a feasible reality with character motivations and actions we can actually believe. Rather than the themes of the movie fully driving the action, it is perhaps the directors’ fear of straying too far from the true story.

This commitment stretches to the acting, as well. Woodlawn is filled with professional actors that can do the job. And even those roles played by non-professionals were clearly cast with those that could effectively fill their roles. The two leads of the film, Nic Bishop as the coach and Caleb Castille as the star running back, carry the emotional and thematic weight of the film with humility and believability. These two characters are not portrayed as perfect, but as real people with conflicted emotions whose often-pure motivations aren’t a guarantee of a successful outcome. Both Bishop and Castille understand that the audience will take its emotional cues from them, and the more subtly their play their characters, the more the audience will lean in and pay closer attention, not only to them, but to the film as a whole.

Special attention must also be paid to Jon Voight, whose Bear Bryant is a man of quiet integrity. Bryant may be written as a series of platitudes in a polyester jacket, but Voight adds gravitas and real weight to the man, while embracing idiosyncrasies that keep him from becoming an otherworldly sage and instead portray him as a wise and humble man. Voight, whose tendency to overplay things has kept me from embracing him in the past, brings his own lifetime of experience and layers it onto the character, to the point that we completely understand why football fans hold this coach in such high regard.

Unfortunately, not all the actors work out quite as well as these. But, oddly enough, it’s the professionals that are the weak links here. As the sports chaplain that kicks off the high school football team’s spiritual awakening, Sean Astin should have an air of authority to him, able to corral and inspire a bunch of rowdy (and often angry) football players. Instead, Astin’s character seems like some kind of pest, always waiting in the background to spout off Christian catch phrases that even he doesn’t seem to believe. If we are inspired by what this character says, it is in spite of Astin’s performance and rarely because of it. The opposite goes for C. Thomas Howell as the cocky rival coach. While Astin seems too small to inhabit his role, Howell is way over the top. The swagger, the grin, and the general tone of the performance are something out of a silent film, where the villains twirled their mustaches as they tied defenseless women to train tracks. He breaks the reality of the film every time he is on screen.

Both Astin and Howell could have been helped by a better script. While Woodlawn does boast a more focused screenplay than most Christian films, and does understand how to present its lead characters, it tends to go off the rails a bit when delving into its Christian themes. Almost any time the characters make declarative statements about their faith and the role it has played in their lives, it is frustratingly broad. For example, when Astin’s character presents his faith to the team, they react as though this is the first time they’ve heard Christianity talked about in this way, and they respond with excitement. However, as written, Astin’s faith is so generic I genuinely couldn’t believe that these kids hadn’t encountered it at least once in their lives, living in Alabama in the 1960s and 70s.

It is when the film discusses faith overtly that the screenplay starts to come up short. Not only are the Christian monologues written in a conversationally-tone deaf way, but they seem to come out of nowhere, as though the story has to grind to a halt in order to talk about these things. The story of Woodlawn is about a high school team getting over their racial tension due to a shared faith. That is a good story, especially when we see that the conciliatory nature of that faith doesn’t merely end at racial divides, but actually brings the Woodlawn football team together with their rival team to train together. Only a powerful faith can do that, and when we see it in action, the film manages to capture some of that power. And undoubtedly it would have been possible to blend the specifics of this faith into the film fairly seamlessly, but that does not happen here.

And despite telling a good story fairly well, the directors still feel the need to hit some of the same beats that so many other- lesser- Christian filmmakers have hit before them. Like God’s Not Dead (and its upcoming sequel), the directors choose to add an element of secular oppression to the proceedings. Woodlawn being a public high school, the county officials shake their heads disapprovingly of all these expressions of faith. Threats are made, mics cut off, and still the team and the coach persist in their faith. This could be somewhat inspiring, if it didn’t feel so tacked on. Instead, the defiance of this would-be oppression feels like it was added in later; like the studio wouldn’t bankroll the film unless it incorporated this material. As a result, these scenes feel false and hamfisted, and the film would have been better without them.

I realize I’ve spent more time talking about what the film did wrong than right, but, as I said, Woodlawn is far from perfect. But the problems that I have with it are similar to the problems that I would have with any other film. This is a compliment. Most Christian films are so wildly off-base artistically that I find it hard to discuss them in traditional critical terms. Woodlawn at the very least is elevated to the status of being judged as a real movie. And, on that level, it still has some major issues. However, the way the film is shot and put together, the watchability of the two leads, and the general feeling of realism all served the story, and it is a story that needs to be served well. I was often engaged by what I was watching, and felt genuinely encouraged when I left the theater, not merely by the story I had just been told, but how it was told.

One of the good things about so many Christian films being made these days is that it was only a matter of time before some director decided to up the quality of his film. The Erwins have done that. And, in doing so, they’ve thrown down the gauntlet for the Christian film industry. There is now a new baseline for artistic quality. Christian film has no excuse; it now has to be at least as good as Woodlawn. It is a flawed film, but it is a real film, and a huge step in the right direction.

4 Responses to “Throwing Down the Gauntlet, by Tyler Smith”

  1. Tony Vance October 21, 2015 at 6:25 am #

    Wow! This endorsement is encouraging, maybe you guys (the ‘all Christian films are crap’ group) are right to push these movies to higher levels and maybe they are…we (the ‘we’re just glad they’re making Christian movies’ bunch) will just sit back and enjoy the view

  2. Dylan October 29, 2015 at 12:23 am #

    Actually it was a very very good movie. Try to have a more open mind when walking into a movie like this. Critics are nothing new to the christian faith so I don’t expect anything else.

    Thanks.

    • Tyler Smith October 29, 2015 at 3:10 am #

      I walked in with an expectation, just as everybody does. But I was able to drop that expectation and allow the movie to win me over. If that’s not an open mind, I’m not sure what is.
      I do, however, wonder exactly what mindset you had when you read my review.

  3. yankeegospelgirl October 30, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

    This is good to hear, and fair criticisms too, though actually, I’ve heard that the rival coach really was pretty bad, and that actual football coaches can seem like over-the-top cartoon characters sometimes.

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