While they tend to follow a tried and true formula, I’ve been feeling the notable absence of good sports movies lately. When done right, the genre can exemplify the innate appeals of both platforms, often showcasing the ways sports represent humanity in its rawest form. Disney+ is now taking a swing at inspiring audiences with Safety, a true story about one athlete’s persistent courage amidst challenging circumstances. This football drama is admittedly good-natured, yet rarely delves beneath the surface of its fascinating subject matter.
Safety follows the empowering story of former Clemson University football safety Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves). Aided by his teammates and the Clemson community, he succeeds on the field while simultaneously raising and caring for his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) when his mom leaves for rehab.
Ray’s story resonates deeply not because of his triumphs on the football field, rather his enduring persistence to preserve his family under dire circumstances. When Safety touches upon the humanity behind Ray’s sacrifices, there are winning crowd-pleaser moments for audiences to embrace (the third act has some soaringly affectionate frames).
Stars Jay Reeves and Thaddeus Mixson help make the real-life personas feel lived-in onscreen, with Reeves portraying the character’s emotional whirlwind with a layer of thoughtful confliction. Director Reginald Hudlin also deserves credit for operating effectively in the sports movie formula. His explosively kinetic football scenes convey the sport’s hard-hitting nature, while his patient handling of dramatic frames prevents any cloying manipulation.
Safety reaches competent marks across the board, but it’s Disney-fied presentation limits the dramatic impact. Nick Santora’s screenplay utilizes a bevy of familiar sports movie cliches to haphazardly push the narrative forward (there’s an endless array of rah-rah speeches and stereotypically-defined teammates). These contrived elements bring an unwelcomed layer of artificiality to Ray’s story, often overwhelming the material’s impactful nucleus.
By packaging this story into a family-friendly tale, Safety also sanitizes the real steaks behind Ray’s journey. The ample hardships the character faces are often treated with a bizarrely-integrated zaniness. Instead of seeing how the two pulled off their lifestyle, Santora’s script trivializes their struggle by turning to hokey comedic scenarios (the scenes where Ray attempts to hide Fahmarr feel better suited for a slapstick comedy). Along with the simplification of Rey/Fahmarr’s challenging upbringing and their mom’s struggles with addiction, Safety isn’t well-equipped to tackle the material’s real-world elements.
There’s a great movie to be made about Ray McElrathbey’s story, but Safety’s timid delivery falls short of its subject’s impressive stature.