Hollywood has mined a rich vein of football movies over the years, from “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) and “Rudy” (1993) to modern classics like “Remember the Titans” (2000) and “The Blind Side” (2009). The latest addition to this collection of sporting celluloid is “Safety,” a Walt Disney Motion Pictures release and a true contender for ‘Feel-good Movie of the Year.’
In fact, it might just be in the best tradition of Disney films, the “instant classic” that appeals to the whole family and sends everyone home from the multiplex with a sense of uplifting inspiration.
Of course, as this is the age of online streaming, most people will already be at home, watching it on Disney+, but that should be the only difference from the usual cinematic experience, as this is most definitely a movie that follows in the footsteps of previous Disney sports standouts like “Cool Runnings” and “Secretariat.”
“Safety” is based on the true story of Clemson University football hopeful Ray McElrathbey and his heartwarming battle to look after his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr while fighting for his spot on the team and earning his sociology degree.
It has every right to aim high, as it boasts a star-studded production team steeped in upbeat sports dramas, while McElrathbey himself collaborated on the two-hour epic. Director Reginald Hudlin produced the Oscar-winning “Django Unchained,” and producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray were involved with each of “Secretariat,” “Miracle,” “Million Dollar Arm” and “The Rookie,” with writer Nick Santora’s credits including television series “Most Dangerous Game” and “The Fugitive.”
From the opening campus shot, which faithfully mimics Sergio Leone’s grand aerial panorama of the town of Flagstone in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” director Hudlin conducts an up-close-and-personal view of McElrathbey’s hardscrabble life, with his mother in rehab and father absent, and the family heartbreak that ensues.
Hudlin largely avoids falling through the trap-door of cinematic schmaltz in portraying the brothers’ relationship, and he allows the impish Fahmarr—touchingly portrayed by 12-year-old star-in-the-making Thaddeus J. Mixson—to be a real scene-stealer at times, with some of the best lines.
Versatile actor-artist Jay Reeves plays the on-screen Ray with a distinct flavor of the young Will Smith, and gets to the heart of a complex character with an ease that is boosted by his own high school pedigree as a multi-sport star. In short, he looks the part of the safety of the title.
It is predominantly a young cast. Jamie Foxx’s daughter Corinne Foxx plays campus reporter and love interest Kaycee and soon-to-be teenage heartthrob Daniel Morelli is Ray’s teammate, Hunter, among a group of highly-likable college jocks and followers, and they provide a convincing background for Ray and Fahmarr to shine from.
The football scenes demonstrate all the latest dizzying camera angles we’re used to seeing on national television coverage, while the sense of college sporting pageantry comes through loud and clear in ways that continue to be inspiring and are instantly relatable in campuses everywhere.
True, the director’s view of Clemson might have been filmed through a lens that was distinctly rose-colored at times, such is the glossy life of seemingly everyone on campus, but the story of the McElrathbeys is anything but glamorous.
Ultimately, it is not so much about football—the first game action doesn’t arrive on screen until well into the second hour—or even college life so much as a family situation that plays out all too often in damaging human terms.
When Ray utters the fateful words “I’ll take him” to the foster care agent, your heart bleeds for the monumental decision it represents for the young man, as you are only too aware it has its roots in countless similar broken-home situations, where drug dependency and rehab are the twin scourges of family life.
Director Hudlin confirmed: “There are so many great sports movies, going back to ‘Brian’s Song,’ but the trick is what new do you have to say? It’s not about doing what they did. And while, yes, it’s part of this rich genre of motion pictures, I think Ray’s story is unique and has something special to say. That resonates with everyone who sees it, no matter who they are, no matter where they’re from.”
In the end, though—and with a finale straight out of the closing scenes of “Rudy”—Ray and Fahmarr contrive the classic Disney flourish, along with echoes of “The Blind Side,” another recent Disney football biopic, “Invincible,” and even “Toy Story.”
The foster care and rehab scenes are tough to watch as they have the ring of 100% authenticity, while the absurdities of the NCAA are also on display, but this remains an inherently empathetic movie that will have you cheering for Clemson (which might be hard for many other college football fans) long before the end, as well as providing some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.
And it might just be your favorite holiday movie this year, without ever mentioning the holidays!
The final word, though, goes to director Hudlin. “One of the things that has been most gratifying is that people see the movie, they laugh, they cry, and that’s what I want. If you’re laughing, you’re crying and you’re feeling inspired, then we’ve done our job.”
“Safety” is streaming exclusively on Disney+ starting Friday, Dec. 11. Check out the trailer below: