The faith-based football drama Woodlawn entered rarified air in its opening weekend, earning an accolade from audiences bestowed on only a handful of films each year.
The movie, an exhilarating true-life high school football story about revival and reconciliation that offers hope for overcoming the racial crises facing America today, received an A+ rating from Cinemascore, the film industry’s pre-eminent gauge of audience opinion for more than 35 years.
Only a few films annually receive the coveted rating, with faith films being well-represented among the honorees in recent years.
Woodlawn was directed by Jon and Andy Erwin and produced by Kevin Downes. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett were executive producers under their Lightworkers Media banner.
Downey and Burnett aren’t surprised audiences are responding so positively to the film.
“Clearly Woodlawn got this extraordinary rating because it’s an A+ film,” the husband-and-wife producing partners said. “Woodlawn takes the audience on a sweeping journey, which is both exciting and emotional. The Erwin Brothers made an incredible film, and people are loving it. We are very encouraged.”
Woodlawn outperformed industry predictions in its opening weekend box office, taking in an estimated $4 million.
But audiences aren’t alone in their high praise. Critics are also raving about Woodlawn. Michael Rechtshaffen of the L.A. Times says the film “gets high marks for its attention to period detail and committed performances.” Jackie K. Cooper of the Huffington Post says “Woodlawn scores big” and “revs up the chill factor, and sends you out of the theater resolved to be a better person.”
James Ward of Gannett News Service says “it’s impossible not to recognize the skill and power of the way the filmmakers tell their story.” And Variety praised it as a “consistently involving period drama” whose “narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.”
“For me, as gratifying as the Cinemascore rating is, what’s really touched me are the incredible ways audiences are engaging with the film,” Jon Erwin said. “Rival football teams are seeing it together and praying together. They are making the same decision for love and unity depicted in the film.”
Woodlawn tells the true-life story of Tony Nathan (newcomer Caleb Castille), who lands in a powder keg of anger and violence when he joins fellow African-American students at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala., after its government-mandated desegregation in 1973. The Woodlawn Colonels football team is a microcosm of the problems at the school and in the city, which erupts in cross burnings and riots, and Coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop) is at a loss to solve these unprecedented challenges with his disciplinarian ways.
It’s only when Hank (Sean Astin), an outsider who has been radically affected by the message of hope and love he experienced at a Christian revival meeting, convinces Coach Gerelds to let him speak to the team that something truly remarkable begins to happen. More than 40 players, nearly the entire team, black and white, give their lives over to the “better way” Hank tells them is possible through following Jesus, and the change is so profound in them it affects their coach, their school and their community in ways no one could have imagined.
The Colonels make a run at the state playoffs led by Nathan, who achieves superstar status in Birmingham and attracts the attention of legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (Jon Voight). It’s the miracle, Hank says, of what happens when God shows up.
“You always hope audiences are entertained and moved by the films you make,” Producer Kevin Downes said. “We couldn’t be happier at the response Woodlawn has received.”