WHERE Streaming on Disney+
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Disney, a longtime presence in the inspirational sports movie business, returns to the well again with "Safety."
The newest offering from the studio behind "Miracle," "Remember the Titans" and many others tells the story of former Clemson University football player Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), who juggled strenuous athletic and academic demands with serving as the guardian for his younger brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) during his time at the school in 2006.
The picture is directed by the veteran Reginald Hudlin ("Marshall"), co-stars James Badge Dale, Corinne Foxx and Matthew Glave, and is now streaming on Disney+.
MY SAY Here's a movie that appears to have the support of Clemson, while being produced by Disney and scrubbed free of any grit in favor of sticking closely to its uplifting template. That's a business venture, a marketing opportunity, more so than the groundwork for a compelling work of dramatic cinema.
"Safety" fits a clear niche on the powerful streaming platform; anyone familiar with the company's past efforts in this area knows exactly where this movie is going, down to the precise feel-good beats.
But the movie proves that the age-old fundamentals of the genre remain as strong as ever and that quality acting, directing and writing can transcend even the most suspect origins.
It starts with the reality that McElrathbey's true story is a compelling one, and that the football itself is ultimately beside the point. The movie is far less interested in how Clemson fares against its opponents, and even in what the protagonist does on the field, than it is in what his tale says about what the megabusiness of top-level college athletics demands of its athletes.
The focus of the screenplay by Nick Santora is twofold: developing Ray's sweet and affecting relationship with Fahmarr, and chronicling the extent to which stringent National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regulations limiting the assistance available to players inject ever more instability into a situation that's already very difficult.
It's crafted with a sure hand by Hudlin, who injects measures of authenticity that undercut the superficial aesthetic.
The movie operates under parameters that are less than convincing, presenting Clemson as one big, happy family, a community that simply loves its football team and will do whatever is needed for its players.
But the college football milieu benefits from filming on the Clemson campus and the practice scenes and moments depicting the bond between teammates have a real sense of purpose to them. At the same time, the filmmaker effectively showcases the pressures facing Ray by capturing them with a propulsive rhythm — Ray is often seen running somewhere, flopping into bed exhausted, or commuting either to school or back home to Atlanta.
As Fahrmarr moves in with Ray while their mother fights her drug addiction, Reeves and Mixon create the sense of a genuinely close brotherly relationship. The movie achieves its most lasting emotional resonance thanks to the subtle gestures each brings to their parts, with Ray devoted to Fahmarr in a real and recognizable way, and Fahmarr clearly hoping for nothing more than to make his brother proud.
The conflict over Ray's continuing eligibility with the NCAA in the light of his situation might not sound like the stuff of great drama, but as depicted in "Safety," it clearly elucidates the growing sense that treating these athletes supporting a multibillion dollar business as mere students might be ripe for rethinking.
BOTTOM LINE "Safety" follows the inspirational sports movie template pretty closely, but thanks to a compelling story and high quality acting, it's worth the watch.