It’s probably harder to make a bad football film compared to any other sport. Rather than make the blooper reel, Safety follows the playbook and scores with its admittedly very impressive actual true story.
Ray-Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves, All-American) has just arrived at Clemson on a football scholarship in 2006 ready to make an impact. Unlike a lot of student athletes, Ray-Ray gets that a career in the pros might be beyond his grasp and is taking advantage of his opportunity to set up a strong foundation for life after college ball.
His plans get smacked harder than a wide receiver on a crack block when his little brother, Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson), is in danger of being placed in foster care. Their mother is finally on the path to facing her drug addiction through rehab. While that’s great news, Fahmarr is facing a future in foster care without a guardian to supervise his care. Taking care of Fahmarr isn’t exactly new for Ray-Ray and he decides to have him stay at his dorm room through their mother’s rehab stint.
Juggling schoolwork, the team playbook and being a de facto parent quickly becomes overwhelming for Ray-Ray, who’s not accustomed to relying on others for help. Eventually, Ray-Ray starts to lean on his friends, teammates and coaches while in the process finding the family unit he never knew he needed.
Director Reginald Hudlin (Marshall) avoids the easy clichés of this genre with black players and white coaches. In one scene, Coach Simmons (James Badge Dale, Iron Man 3) shares a story of his own hardship that has nothing to do with race.
Hudlin isn’t setting out to make a high impact sports film so the big plays on the field are limited. He does try some less traditional helmet perspective shots that are very effective. Hudlin doesn’t go heavy on camera tricks although one sequence where Ray-Ray and his roommate Daniel (Hunter Sansone) hit the snooze button and the screen rotates was fun.
There’s a few Disney movie moments like Fahmarr being hidden in the dirty clothes hamper, but otherwise the film avoids being too silly.
The end-credit notes and photos show Reeves is a rare instance where the actor has a very close likeness to the actual person. That hardly ever happens especially without the ability to enhance the likeness with makeup and prosthetics. Reeves is convincing in the role and never tries to go overboard in his scenes.
Sports dramas will occasionally lend themselves to big showy performances, but not too many afford the genuine spotlight moments like Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans or Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. Reeves makes the smart call to stay in his lane and not overact like he’s vying for Oscar consideration.
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Like most “inspired by a true story” films there’s certain dramatic liberties taken. Screenwriters Nick Santora and Randy McKinnon’s biggest one seems to be setting the events of the film in Ray-Ray’s freshman year instead of his sophomore year. Sure the odds would be overwhelming for a freshman, but having to make such a drastic switch in lifestyle after already having spent a year in college seems more challenging.
And maybe Ray-Ray didn’t immediately hit it off and start dating the helpful sports reporter, Kaycee (Corinne Foxx) either. The basic relationship feels a little too simple yet it allows for some nice moments where Ray-Ray can actually have some fun. Foxx, the daughter of Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, is following the blueprint of stars like Zoe Saldana and Gabrielle Union on her career path nicely by getting the sports competition film on her resume early.
These family films can live or die with the youngest star and Mixson holds his end without any trouble. He avoids the temptation to play Fahmarr too cute or grown up allowing for sweet scenes like his excitement about his first school dance or helping prepare dinner for Ray-Ray shine.
Hudlin’s smartest play with Safety is never leaning too heavy on the melodrama. The story doesn’t need enhancing or touch ups to share this inspirational tale that should prove a big winner for families this holiday.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Disney+