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.