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‘Safety’ a feel-good football film

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Full disclosure: I am a sucker for an inspirational sports movie. No matter the sport, no matter the story – I’m in. Give me athletes overcoming obstacles and coming together as a team in the course of that overcoming. Heck and yes.

All of this is to say that I was always going to enjoy “Safety,” the new film from Disney now streaming on Disney+. Based on the true story of football player Ray McElrathbey and his little brother Fahmarr, it’s a tale of perseverance in the face of adversity, as well as of the different ways people can be (or become) family.

Now, this is a Disney production, so the grittier aspects of the story have definitely had those rough edges sanded down. Still, for the most part, director Reginald Hudlin manages to keep the proceedings from moving beyond the sentimental into the saccharine. The beats will ring familiar to anyone who watches this sort of film, but the emotions still resonate. And make no mistake – this is a movie that is both aware of which buttons to push and unafraid to push them.

Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves, “The Tax Collector”) is a young man from Atlanta who, through hard work and perseverance, has achieved his dream – he’s earned a scholarship to play football for Clemson University. He’s taken on a lot – not just his football career, but an ambitious courseload – and is primed to put forth his maximum effort.

But things at home are tough. Specifically, Ray’s mother Tonya (Amanda Warren, TV’s “Dickinson”) – she’s struggling with substance abuse and a recent relapse has left her unable to properly care for Ray’s 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson in his feature debut). When Tonya lands a spot in a 30-day treatment facility, Ray has a decision to make – let his brother enter into the system until his mom gets out … or take the boy in himself.

Despite all the rules to the contrary, Ray brings Fahmarr to Clemson to live with him. He does his best at keeping it all together – and keeping it all secret – but people begin to suspect something is up. Ray’s roommate Morelli (Hunter Sansone, TV’s “Stargirl”) knows, obviously, but Ray’s head coach Tommy Bowden (Matthew Glave, “Uncorked”) and his position coach Brad Simmons (James Badge Dale, “The Empty Man”) are unimpressed with his seeming lack of focus. Ditto Kaycee (Corinne Foxx, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged”), the fellow student with whom Ray has found a spark (though he’s scared to share his secret with her).

But when circumstances necessitate Fahmarr needing a place to stay even longer, Ray finds himself at a crossroads. How far is he willing to go – and how much is he willing to sacrifice – to do what is best for his brother? And who will be there to help him?

While I’m being conscious of avoiding spoilers here, the truth is that even if you weren’t already aware of the real-life story, you could pretty easily work out how this story was going to play out. It’s Disney – even the tragic aspects of the story are going to be pretty glossy. The history of inspirational sports movies tells you everything you need to know about the narrative beats that we’re going to hit.

And that’s OK. The predictability is part of the package when it comes to this kind of film. You’re not watching this movie to be surprised by some bleak turn – you’re here to feel good and Disney knows it. They are going to connect all the dots needed to take you on a journey that moves you in the way you expect to be moved – and ends the way you expect it to end.

Now, “Safety” doesn’t reach the heights of the true genre elite. It’s not quite up to that level, but it does settle into a comfortable spot a couple of tiers lower on the ladder. Hudlin’s direction is fairly workmanlike for the most part, though you’ll do well to note the engaging execution of the (surprisingly infrequent) football action. While it’s a movie with football in it rather than a football movie, you’d still expect to see a bit more stuff on the field, but what we do see is pretty solid.

Reeves does a nice job as Ray, holding the emotional center of the movie while also doing an admirable job of looking like an elite athlete. He largely plays it straight, which allows room for the utterly charming Mixson to get laughs as a precocious kid doing precocious kid things. The two of them together craft a very believable brotherly dynamic; their relationship is the most effective aspect of the entire movie. Foxx hasn’t quite gotten a handle on things yet; she’s fine, but you can tell that with a little more experience, she’s going to be a VERY good actress. Still, she’s perfectly capable of handling what’s expected of her here.

As for the rest of the cast, it all plays out more or less by rote. They hit their marks, say their lines and check the inspirational movie boxes. Warren is the troubled parent. Sansone is the comic relief roommate. Glave is the hardass coach. Dale is the hardass-but-secretly-sensitive-and-supportive coach. We’ve even got an on-and-off-field rival played by former NFL linebacker-turned-actor Miles Burris. It’s all part of the recipe, with each of these ingredients doled out in the proper amounts.

“Safety” isn’t a life-changing movie. But it is an affirmational and, yes, inspirational movie. The story of Ray McElrathbey and his brother is a moving one, capturing the emotional highs and lows of a tale rife with tragedies and triumphs alike. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you know your buttons are being pushed, so long as they’re pushed well.

“Safety” pushes them well enough.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 14 December 2020 10:33

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