There are a few subjects more perfectly suited to the medium of film than the sports story. Sports provide a built-in context for storytelling: a team that functions as a surrogate family, conflict baked in, and fans and supporters alike to help move the plot along. In terms of setup, they are effectively unmatched. Sports movies provide a framework upon which you can hang a story about characters overcoming odds and achieving greatness, either professionally or personally.
Ray “Ray-Ray” McElrathbey’s story is seemingly also perfectly designed for the cinema. After gaining a full scholarship to Clemson University to play football, he ends up also taking custody of his eleven-year-old brother Fahmarr after his mother relapses. There’s a lot of potential for story and character there, and the resulting film does its best –for better and for worse– to tell as much of it as possible.
McElrathbey’s story is a remarkable one and one that speaks to the character of his school. In taking in Fahmarr while living in dorms Ray endangered his entire future, and when the school found out, they rallied around him and helped find a place to live, manage his schedule, and ultimately raise Fahmarr. It’s exactly the kind of story that has so many important moments that adapting the story must be have been incredibly difficult.
The hits the ground running and the pace never lets up from the first frame to the last, and despite the two-hour runtime still feels more than a little overstuffed. More importantly, for a film that is so full of stuff happening there is precious little in the way of stakes or conflict. When Ray arrives, he meets a girl who the quarterback likes. She’s not with the quarterback though; they just went to high school together! The same quarterback doesn’t really like Ray-Ray because Ray-Ray seems distracted. One conversation later and they’re good, though.
This kind of thing happens throughout the movie. Part of the problem is that the film progresses at a breakneck pace, there’s not really a lot of time for these conflicts while we’re trying to worry about what is going to happen to Fahmarr, but since it’s also a true story we also know that this story is going to have a happy ending.
Where the pacing stumbles though, the cast is good. Jay Reeves and Thaddeus J. Mixson are good as Ray and Fahmarr respectively, and Corinne Foxx brightens up every scene she appears in. James Badge Dale shows up as the coach that believes in Ray and gets the inspirational speeches that keep Ray going through the toughest of times.
I suppose what I am getting at here is that while you haven’t seen this movie before, you have definitely seen this movie before. Director Reginald Hudlin adds some visual flair, shooting scenes in long takes that allow conversations and action alike to flow. One football game, in particular, shot during half time of an actual Clemson Tigers game, is absolutely electric.
This is a film that is exactly what you think it is going to be. An extraordinary your man does extraordinary things, and everyone lives happily ever after. Sports can provide a perfect framework for great storytelling, but it’s not a guarantee. Safety lives up to its own name; it doesn’t take any chances with its material, nor does it take any chances with the way it tells its story. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it does hold it back from being a great one.
Safety premieres on Disney+ on Friday, December 11th